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Western Governors’ Association looks at importance of water quality at the watershed level

Written by Saige

“In western states, water quality is a concern – first because there isn’t a whole bunch of water in the arid West and also because there are a number of things that affect the water we do have,” said Kevin Moss of the Western Governors’ Association (WGA). 

Over the last two years, WGA has focused on improving water quality across the West through Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s Chairman’s Initiative, which focuses on national forests and rangeland management.

“Over the course of this initiative, we’ve seen that water quality is inextricably linked to the health of the landscape,” Moss explained. “There are challenges and great work being done to address these challenges.”

Moss was joined by National Forest Foundation Field Programs Vice President Marcus Selig, Salt River Project Water Supply Director Bruce Hallin and Intel Corporation’s Fawn Bergen during a Feb. 13 webinar, where they addressed “Water Quality Concerns in Western Forests and Rangelands.”

Big picture

The activity in watersheds of the West affects downstream water quality, water quantity and water delivery, explained Marcus Selig. 

Selig further noted, “Our national forests are the source of water for 123 million people in our country. Our forests are the beginning of where our water starts, and the health of forests affects how the water gets to us.” 

“When our watersheds are unhealthy,” he commented, “it comes at a price.” 

Unhealthy watersheds can result in damaged infrastructure including pipeline, reservoir and conduit damage and more. Additionally, unhealthy watersheds result in sediment filling reservoirs, which reduces storage capacity and increases turbidity and pollution in the waters. 

Management

Managing watersheds includes four primary components, Selig explained. 

“There are a lot of activities that are important for maintaining watershed health, and there are lots of activities that need to happen from a management perspective for healthy watersheds,” he said. 

First, sediment and erosion control are important to prevent pollutants from roads, trails, etc. from being deposited in waterways. 

“Stream and wetland health is also important,” Selig commented. “These are natural filters for our water system, and we work to improve habitats, making sure there is native vegetation and better function, to improve watersheds.”

Habitat improvement projects including forest thinning and prescribed burning are also important to make sure healthy forests are less susceptible to another major challenges for watersheds – wildfire. 

Fire impacts

One of the biggest challenges facing watersheds, said Selig, is the impact of wildfires. 

“Historically, we have forests that were adapted to fire,” he explained, “but in the last century, we’ve had fire suppression that has allowed more trees to come up that would have been reduced by frequent fires.” 

The result is higher fuel loads and an elevated risk for fire. 

“When forests burn, instead of having the low-intensity fires that we used to see, we see large fires that are difficult to control and impact a number of resources,” Selig said. 

Following large fires, Selig noted the resulting landscape shows degraded wildlife habitat, recreation potential and water quality. 

“Focusing on water, when water or snow falls, there’s nothing to catch or protect the flows that go into streams or river on fire-ravaged lands, which impacts water quality,” Selig explained.

On the ground

Bergen, who manages Intel’s water and carbon footprint, emphasized the importance of water quality for all aspects of society, including places where American typically would not make the connection.

“Many people might ask why a technology company talks about water stewardship,” Bergen said. “It’s probably not common knowledge, but water is important to us.”

In 2016, Intel reported using over 10 billion gallons of water in their operations globally.

“Our water use is split between reclaimed water that we’re able to buy and freshwater usage,” she explained. “We are recycling, reclaiming or reducing 40 percent of water use, and we treat and discharge about 80 percent of the water we bring in.” 

The treated water is then used in communities where Intel’s facilities are, including, for example, in Arizona, where it is used to recharge aquifers. 

Currently, Intel works in collaboration with communities to implement on-the-ground projects that impact water quality. 

“We invest our money in areas that provide long-term impacts to watersheds,” Bergen said. 

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..