Forest-water interactions in the changing environment of south-western Australia

Map showing rainfall isohyets (historical climate from 1961 to 1990) with the Northern Jarrah Forest (dark green) in the background

In a major Australian city, water supply has been decoupled from forests as a result of management and climate change. Water yield and quality are closely related to forest cover and have been manipulated through broad-scale intervention. The forests remain important for biodiversity protection and considering water as a forest product will fund interventions that maintain the forest’s environmental values.

Context Perth, an Australian city of 2 million people and a potable water demand of 300 GL/year, occurs in a region that has experienced a decline in rainfall and a major reduction in surface runoff to water supply reservoirs over the last 40 years. This has led to a major impact on water policies, with the collapse of surface water supply from forested watersheds resulting in the almost complete substitution of Perth’s water supply with groundwater and desalinated water. Thus, water supply has been decoupled from forests and forest management processes.
Aims In this paper, we review the interactions between forest cover and water supply in the drying environment of south-western Australia, exploring studies on the hydrological effects of extensive deforestation for agricultural development, widespread reforestation, forest management, and reduced annual rainfall. We draw conclusions applicable to other regions that are experiencing the combined impacts of climate change and pressures from land-use intensification.
Results We find that streamflow and water quality are clearly linked to forest cover and this is affected by both climate and forest management. Streamflow increases with a reduction of forest cover (through deforestation or thinning) and decreases with reforestation and reduced rainfall. Stream salinity increases with deforestation and decreases with reforestation. Hydrological responses occur where forest cover treatments have been applied and maintained at watershed-scales. Surprisingly, where water yield or quality has been improved, this has not been rewarded financially and there is a need to develop methods of financing treatments to maintain streamflow.
Conclusion Whereas forests were initially maintained for water and timber supply, with biodiversity protection as a co-benefit without a defined value, the decoupling of forests from water supply has substantially reduced the financial resources for any form of direct forest management. As the forests remain important for biodiversity protection, a key recommendation is to consider water as a forest product and thus provide funds for watershed-scale treatments, such as forest thinning, that maintain the forest’s environmental values in a drying climate.

Forest management, Australia, Climate change, Water yield, Payment for environmental services

Harper, R., Smettem, K.R.J., Ruprecht, J.K. et al. Annals of Forest Science (2019) 76: 95.

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