Climate change is not only causing temperatures to rise, it is also altering the amount and type of precipitation that falls across the western United States. Research shows a trend of increasingly dry “dry years,” meaning droughts are becoming more severe and streams are flowing lower during these periods. Forests play an important role in delivering high quality water to streams, but climate change is affecting this role. Drought can cause tree mortality due to lack of water or reduced resistance to insects and disease. Dry fuels and stressed vegetation in forests also increases the potential for large wildfires.
When many trees die in a forest fire or from disease or insect outbreaks, the amount of water entering nearby streams often increases. However, so does the delivery of sediment to these streams through erosion. These changes call on resource managers and communities in the West to start conversations today about addressing water supplies in the future. In addition, silviculturists, fuel specialists, and aquatic ecologists can work together to maintain a holistic view of ecosystems that, above all, considers where forests fit in the water balance.