Many of us in Nova Scotia depend on the clean drinking water that healthy forests provide. Forests provide this service naturally and freely. But when forests are abused, so too are drinking water supplies. New York City recognized the connection between healthy forests and drinking water: the city is spending some $1.5 billon to protect 80,000 acres of forest land to safe-guard its drinking water. This may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a good deal compared to the $8 billon the city would have to spend to build a water filtration plant to accomplish the same services that a healthy forest provides.
Why are healthy forests and water so intricately connected? Water can be called the ‘lifeblood’ of the forest: clean, fresh, water is an essential ingredient of our native Acadian Forest. All life in the forest needs water to drink. By weight, trees are roughly one-half water, and a hectare of Nova Scotia forest can contain over 60 tonnes of water in the trees alone.
Water in the forest does much more than quench the thirst of lofty red spruce trees. Water provides rich habitat – a close look at a forest stream or pond reveals abundant life, from plants and mosses to salamanders, frogs, turtles, fish and countless insects. Forest ecologists report that some 90% of all wildlife relies on the habitat found in or next to forest waterways.
Trees provide shade that helps keep streams cool. Trout and salmon, for example, suffer when water temperatures rise. Tree roots prevent erosion, keeping sediment from clogging stream beds and smothering fish eggs. Dead trees that fall into streams create ideal pools and shaded hiding spots for fish.
Importantly for drinking water supplies, forests act as giant filters and sponges, removing pollutants and sediments from water, and soaking up and storing vast amounts of water, slowly but faithfully releasing clean water into waterways and underground water reserves.
People who own forest land can help ensure healthy forests, healthy water systems and sustained drinking water supplies. (1) Let nature take its course. With time, degraded forest and aquatic ecosystems naturally recover. (2) Restore forest cover to the banks of water ways, especially on farmland. All waterways should have at least 30 metres (100 feet) of forest along their edges. (3) Don’t clearcut. Without forest cover, water can move too quickly through the forest, causing erosion, nutrient loss and drought.