The water that comes from our tap is easily taken for granted. For most Americans, water is cheap, it’s readily available by the turn of a handle, and it is expected.
We rarely think about where our water comes from, or the massive amount of work that it took to produce, until there is some type of water quality or quantity crisis. So, communicating about the inextricable connection between the health of our forests and the quality of our drinking water is already an uphill battle, but a critical one.
For generations, private forest owners have been providing a consistent, steady supply of high-quality source water for drinking-water treatment facilities free of charge, and they are doing a great job. Forests provide an abundant, affordable supply of water by improving aquifer recharge; moderating water flow and reducing soil erosion; and reducing drinking water treatment and transportation costs.
However, as forest landowners continue to face increasing pressure from urban and suburban development and an ever-increasing tax burden, those bene- fits to water become threatened.
That is why the Georgia Forestry Foundation (GFF) is working with a broad coalition of state and national partners to identify ways to attract investment from water utilities and authorities, major water users, and the private sector, to drive value from sustainably managed forests.
RESEARCH Understanding and Defining Ecosystem- Services Market Opportunities For more than 20 years, the concept of ecosystem services markets has been evolving. In 2011, GFF funded research through the University of Georgia to quantify the monetary value of ecosystem services provided by Georgia’s 22 million acres of privately owned timber- land. This research, along with critical work from the Georgia Forestry Com- mission and others, has established a foundational knowledge of ecosystem services for the entire country.
Today, GFF is supporting work within a broad coalition of national and regional organizations to gain a better understanding of the types of ecosystem-service market structures and agreements where landowners can be paid for the clean water services they provide. With funding from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, GFF embarked on a multi-phased project earlier this year together with Keeping Forests, a regional partnership of 40 organizations with the common mission to keep forests as forests. The research was conducted by Dovetail Partners, a nationally recognized think tank focused on complex forestry issues.
The research provides a comprehensive review of successful approaches to ecosystem services programs across the country and the tools used to implement effective programs. At the local level, the study was informed by expert interviews and focus groups within four primary watersheds in Georgia — Upper Oconee, Middle Chattahoochee, Lower Flint and Lower Savannah. Engaging more than 350 individuals in focus groups within each watershed, the research team produced key insights on the effectiveness and cost of various conservation mechanisms, comparing and contrasting land acquisitions, long- and short-term conservation easements, and management agreements.
“The Foundation’s work to develop a sustainable model for an ecosystem services market in Georgia is rooted in supporting the private landowner,” says GFF Vice President Nick DiLuzio. “In order to consider at-scale conservation in these watersheds, we have to present a solution that works for the landowner while driving conservation value back to the water user or water provider. This research is going to provide Georgia, and the entire United States, with guidance on developing successful forest water markets.”
GFF and Keeping Forests are slated to release the results of the study later this fall. The findings will help to inform GFF’s continued work in ecosystem- services market development.
COMMUNICATIONS Building Momentum Among Stakeholders The forestry community has a strong grasp on the benefits of forests to clean and abundant source-water supplies, but there is still a disconnect with water utilities and the general public. Long-term success of market development projects depends on our ability to effectively communicate the value that forests provide to communities across the state in the form of water quality and quantity. GFF is partnering with Keeping Forests and Georgia-Pacific to produce a short documentary that is focused on highlighting a success story in our own backyard: the Savannah River Clean Water Fund.
The Savannah River Clean Water Fund is an ecosystem services project that includes portions of Georgia and South Carolina along the Savannah River. The program encompasses a broad group of stakeholders, including five drinking water utilities participating as buyers in efforts to sustain the local forests’ ability to provide water ecosystem-service benefits for communities and companies operating in the Savannah River Watershed. Recently, International Paper became the first partner from the private sector to join the list of buyers participating in this Clean Water Fund.
The Clean Water Fund has raised more than $585,000 from water utilities to enroll 14,165 acres of forestland in conservation easements. Utilities also contributed $180,000 to a direct land purchase and another $50,000 to land- owner outreach and education within the watershed. The documentary is focused on exploring how the partnership was established, its current challenges and opportunities, and plans for the future. The documentary will be used to raise awareness of source water conservation using ecosystem service markets, with water professionals, legislators and key decision makers across the state and the U.S. South participating through the Keeping Forests network. The documentary is slated to be released this fall. ■
Matt Hestad is the Vice President of Engagement for the Georgia Forestry Association.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com