Resource Management

Your National Forests’ Role in Caring for Water

Water Home Your Watersheds Caring for Water Make a Difference Water Community


What does water have to do with Forests?​

Water is one of the most important natural resources flowing from forests. On behalf of the American people, the Forest Service manages the largest single source of water in the U.S., with about 20 percent originating from 193 million acres of land. Nearly 90% of these lands are located in watersheds that contribute to public water supplies.

Congress gave the Forest Service the authority to decide how to manage the resources within National Forests, including the use of water. In determining what activities and uses are authorized, the Forest Service ensures decisions comply with a multitude of state and federal laws including, but not limited to, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Interestingly, maintaining and restoring watersheds was a primary reason National Forests were created in America. The Organic Act of 1897 was the law that established the National Forests. This law says right up front “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows….”

Another important law for the Forest Service is the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act (1960). This law directs the agency to provide for the wide variety of uses of forest natural resources while ensuring they are not depleted for future generations. As water use increases and/or water supply decreases due to drought or other factors, the role of balancing water use with supply (referred to as sustainability) becomes both increasingly challenging and important.

In fact, over the past 10 years, maintaining a balance between the health of the natural water cycle and competing water uses has become one of the San Juan National Forest’s greatest challenges.

Water Sources vs Water UsersThe San Juan National Forest is responsible for a complex set of water resources in a geographical area vital to water production for the region. There are a substantial and growing number of water uses that place demand on the water supply. Our water uses include:

  • Agricultural uses: irrigation, fish hatcheries, stock tanks, fire suppression, etc.
  • Industrial uses: oil and gas drilling, mining and reclamation, power generation, construction, manufacturing, etc.
  • Municipal uses: drinking water, yard watering, washing, park irrigation, fire hydrants, etc.
  • Recreational uses: boating, fishing, skiing, whitewater sports, campgrounds, hunting, waterskiing, etc.

"The Forest Service works to steward public lands and to balance their natural and societal values to ensure that future generations will continue to inherit the precious gifts of healthy rivers and clean water."Your Best Waters, USFS video


How is the San Juan National Forest meeting this challenge?


Role_SteamWater Sampling on the San Juan National Forest

Understanding the natural water cycle, and how it functions in each environment, is key to making good decisions. Long-term research studies, conducted by the Forest Service, provide much of the current understanding of watershed processes. Scientific data is the basis for distinguishing healthy from degraded watersheds, and for restoring them. It is essential for considering potential threats and estimating future trends to guide conscientious planning. Forest officials on the San Juan National Forest contribute to the understanding of our watersheds through long-term monitoring of ecosystems, species, water quality and flow.

Restoring watersheds to health is a major undertaking, requiring  a wide range of activities including; seeding and re-planting, thinning, erosion repair and control, clean-up of contamination, invasive species removal and more. The San Juan National Forest works with partners and community members on a wide range of restoration projects.
Working with water users from the general public to municipalities, industry, ski areas and recreation groups to find equitable and sustainable ways to meet water demands is critical. The Forest informs users about current water conditions, where watersheds are healthy or weak, and about other competing water interests, all with the goal of balancing use and supply over the long term. The Forest convenes groups and solicits broad input to inform its decision-making on the wide variety of water issues.