Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water

Clean Drinking Water

The second half of the Arkansas Forestry and Drinking Water Collaborative’s vision statement is, ‘…Clean Drinking Water’. This raises the question of what constitutes clean drinking water with respect to forestry. Water quality, according to the United States Geological Survey ( can be thought of as ‘a measure of the suitability of water for a particular use based on selected physical, chemical, and biological characteristics’. There is no absolute scale for water quality without an intended use of the water. For drinking water, we want water that is free of pathogenic (disease causing) organisms, toxins, undesirable taste and odor and has a pleasant appearance.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency regulates 90 contaminants ( that have direct impact on human health. These are called the National Primary Drinking Water Standards. For each of the primary contaminants, a maximum contaminant level (MCL) is set. Drinking Water from public systems is not allowed to exceed any of these 90 standards. There are also an additional 15 contaminants ( that impact the aesthetic quality of water or may impact the operation of water treatment equipment. These 15 are referred to as secondary water quality standards. Water utilities strive to meet all 105 of these water quality standards.

But the description of clean water above is for water that has been through a sophisticated treatment process. Ambient water, water in the natural system of streams and lakes or groundwater, generally does not meet all 105 drinking water standards. There may be a few places in remote wilderness where a person can kneel down and drink from a stream. But those places are few and far between. You never know what is going on upstream just around the bend.

Water utilities refer to the ambient water as ‘raw’ water. That is water that has not yet been treated. A utility wants raw water that can be safely treated at a reasonable cost. Certain characteristics of water can make it difficult to treat. Algae can at times impart taste and odors into the water. That taste and odor is usually not unhealthy, but it becomes unpleasant for drinking. Taste and odor are extremely difficult to remove from water through the normal treatment processes. Some alga also at times forms toxic compounds. These algae are referred to as Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs). Algae blooms are difficult to manage and treat for because of their temporary nature. A bloom can show up overnight, then be gone the next night. Algae toxins can be treated, but it difficult and expensive. And with our current testing methods, the toxin may already be in the system before its presence is known. Luckly, HABs have been rare in Arkansas. Algae grow in response to many environmental conditions. But a certain amount of fertilizer (nitrogen or phosphorus) is required for their growth in any situation. So, a raw water low in fertilizer is desired.

Organic carbon also causes water treatment woes. When organic material is treated with disinfectant, the process forms by-products. Some of those by-products may be carcinogens. While these by-products can be treated for, it is better to not have them in the first place. The best treatment in this case is prevention. So, the raw water should have a low concentration of organic carbon.

Water utilities also have to remove turbidity (cloudiness) from the water as well as to remove all of the suspended solid particles. The removed particles form what is called water treatment residuals. Water treatment residuals have to be disposed of in an acceptable manner.

A water utility then would likely think they had clean raw water if that water was relatively clear (low turbidity), had a low concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus, little nuisance algae, little organic carbon, and few suspended solids. They also want good buffers between them and any potential source of contamination such as spills, leaking storage tanks, waste water discharges etc.

The quality of water in a stream or lake is directly related to the characteristics of the watershed tributary to that stream or lake. Land use (urban, forest, farming, residential etc.) has an impact on water quality as well. Of the land uses common in Arkansas, well managed forest provides water that most closely matches the needs of the water utility. The connection of forestry to clean water is a natural.

Forests and Water Blog

Forest Health

The vision statement of the Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Collaborative is, ‘Healthy Managed Forests and Clean Drinking Water. Understanding this statement requires understanding what a ‘healthy forest’ might be. The term is frequently used, but seldom defined. In-fact, many ecologists object to using the term ‘health’ as a description of condition because of its lack of specificity. However, most will agree that the term does provide some general indication that one forest is in better condition than another and therefore ‘health’ is a useful.

Forests are expected to provide a host of ecosystem services including timber and wood products, clean and abundant water, pollution abatement, temperature regulation, recreation, wildlife habitat, medicinal herbs, and spiritual renewal, and aesthetics. One’s definition of forest health depends on one’s desired use of the forest’s services.

In his essay, ‘The Land Ethic’ Aldo Leopold health (of land) as “the capacity of the land to renew itself”. That is likely a good place to start. But it says nothing about the ability to utilize the multiple services and products that forests provide. The Canadian Forest Service, in their publication, “Forest Health; context for the Canadian Forest Service’s Science program” gives an extensive definition, “Forest ecosystems are healthy when their underlying ecological processes operate within a natural range of variability, so that on any temporal or spatial scale, they are dynamic and resilient to disturbance”. Then they go on to explain that managers and policy makers insist that the forest also be able to ‘provide competitive timber supplies and satisfy a wide range of environmental, social and cultural values”. So, they are bringing the concept of forest use into the definition. Things are getting a bit cumbersome here. But that’s the way it goes. They eventually settled on: “

“In general terms, a healthy forest is one that maintains biodiversity, resiliency, wildlife habitat, aesthetic appeal, and resource sustainability.”

That is pretty good. But it still is a bit squishy about which resource is sustainable, timber, wildlife, water, air etc. But it can be assumed that they mean all of the above. Also, you need to know what the base-line for biodiversity, resiliency, wildlife habitat and aesthetic appeal are to make the definition useful. Then again, a person who manages their forest strictly for timber production likely views ‘resource sustainability’ differently than one who manages strictly for water quality or one who manages for hunting and fishing. So, some element of meeting management goals needs to be included.

A really simple definition might be, “a healthy forest is one that meets management goals both at present and also in the future”. This one however ignores the need for biodiversity, complexity, wildlife habitat and aesthetic values entirely. Can a forest be truly healthy if it doesn’t meet those requirements?

So, putting all of this together, it seems that the North Carolina Forest Service provides us with perhaps the best definition.

“A healthy forest is a forest that possesses the ability to sustain the unique species composition and processes that exist within it and accommodate the present and future needs of people for a variety of values, products, and services (North Carolina Forest Service, 2017”.

Introducing the Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Collaborative

IMG_2442May 26 and 27, 2015 45 stakeholders from Arkansas’s forestry and drinking water sectors convened at Camp Mitchell on Petit Jean Mountain at the first-ever Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Forum. This forum was held to explore the common interests of the two sectors, to learn about the issues faced by each of the sectors, to build networks of professionals, and to initiate communication and cooperation between the sectors. The outcome of the forum was: discovery that the two sectors could benefit from collaboration, development of many new contacts, and a commitment to continue the dialogue.
During 2016, the Arkansas Forestry Commission requested and received a Landscape Scale Restoration grant from the US Forest Service to enhance the partnership between the forestry and drinking water sectors. The Forest Commission received $124,930 to implement the effort within the State. Late that year, the Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Steering Committee was formed to oversee the grant as well as to improve communication between the sectors, improve cooperation between the sectors and to initiate collaborative projects. The steering committee consists of representatives from water utilities, forestry landowners, associations and companies, conservation organizations, as well as state and federal agencies. One of the first actions of this new committee was to hold a second Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Forum to continue the conversation. The steering committee now meets semi-annually as the Arkansas Forests and Water Collaborative.
Forestry and drinking water may seem to not have much in common. However, over 60% of Arkansans drink water whose source is a forested watershed. Forests are generally considered to provide the best quality water for water treatment of all common land uses. Forests also provide protection of the water source from accidental pollution such as a tank truck collision or other spill. In addition, the forest industry makes an impact of greater than $6 billion to Arkansas’ economy and employs over 47,000 persons.
Protecting water quality, especially in watersheds that are sources of drinking is one of priorities of the forest industry. The Ozark St. Francis National Forests 2005 management plan states “Protect municipal and other potable water supplies and ensure that management activities do not cause permanent deterioration in water quality or quantity”. In the Ouachita, the Soil, Water and Air section of the 2005 management plan sets the priority as, “Protect source waters and other potable water sources”. The Arkansas Forestry Commission and the major forestry companies in the State also make protecting high quality water priorities.
Arkansas’ Forests and Water Collaborative’s exists to help the two sectors get together for their mutual benefit. Our mission is “…to facilitate conservation and better management of forested watersheds within Arkansas to protect sources of public water supply through improved understanding and communication between the forest and water sectors”. We will meet that mission by providing opportunities for representatives of the sectors to network with each other, to improve inter-sector communication and cooperation, and to generate cooperative projects.
If the state can manage to maintain forest as forest, that will go a long way toward providing us with sufficient high-quality water to support the state’s needs.