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MANHATTAN, Kan.– High crop prices are great for the Kansas economy, but the conversion of trees along streams and rivers into cropland will cost everyone in the long run. Removing riparian forests, forestland adjacent to streams and rivers, negatively affects water quality and quantity.
Agriculture is a key player in deforestation because of the current high commodity prices. Urbanization and urban sprawl also are clearing many acres of forestland. Deforestation is becoming a problem across the country, especially in the state of Kansas.
According to Bruce Yonke, district conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Jackson County, “Many trees are being removed without regard to the environmental benefits they provide and before my office can make wetlands determinations.”
Riparian forests will have the most influence on water quality where field runoff follows direct, shallow flow paths from the uplands to the streams. Landowners should consider leaving a distance of two times the active channel width in timber on both sides of their streams and rivers.
The trees along the streams are critical for surface water quality. They filter pollutants and stabilize the stream banks by holding the bank together so they don’t fail and wash all the sediment downstream. The trees also cool the stream, which is good for fish because cooler water holds more oxygen.
“Surface water quality is a significant environmental issue in Kansas and removing riparian trees is a serious threat to water quality”, said William Beck, Kansas Forest Service watershed forester, “especially because in the eastern part of the state we have all of these reservoirs where people get their drinking water from and when all the sediment flushes into these reservoirs they fill up and the storage capacity is reduced.”
The Kansas Forest Service’s main concern is that these reservoirs are filling up with sediment. Sediment refers to soil particles that enter streams, lakes and other bodies of water from eroding land, including plowed fields, construction and logging sites, urban areas and eroding stream banks.
According to Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, “Kansas’s federal reservoirs, like Tuttle Creek and Perry Lake, are the municipal and industrial water source to more than two-thirds of the state’s population.”
“During years of drought, like Kansas is facing now, there could be water shortages because of decreased storage capacities of the storage reservoirs,” said Beck. “When the water is filled with bacteria, nutrients and sediment, filtration at the treatment plant can be very expensive. That, and storage loss, is why awareness of water quality in these lakes is currently being pushed so hard.”
A Kansas State University economic analysis on Tuttle Creek Reservoir suggests that stream bank stabilization from riparian forests can save $42 million in annual dredging costs to prolong storage capacity.
Riparian forests protect water by acting like a filter and provide the best water quality benefits during floods when most sediment enters streams and reservoirs. Trees have huge elaborate roots systems and their large stems slow down the water during high flow events. The reduction in speed, allows nutrients and sediment to settle out and absorb pesticides and nutrients and “break down” pollutants before they hit the streams, rivers or lakes.
If deforestation continues in Kansas, water quality issues will increase and wildlife and aquatic habitat is going to be threatened.
“In our state, there are not a lot of trees to begin with in comparison to other states like the ones in the Northwest,” said Beck. “So, one could say that the trees that we do have in the state are more important. If deforestation continues we are going to lose all of the ecological benefits that trees provide.”
When sediment and nutrients gather in bodies of water, life cycles of many different fish and amphibians can be negatively affected and microhabitats destroyed.
Beck said that the algal blooms seen this summer are becoming a big problem. When large quantities of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen collect in a lake algae begin to bloom. Then, when the algae die off they consume all of the oxygen, killing many fish and other aquatic life. These algae also produce toxins that are harmful to humans and livestock. When lakes close down in summer because of elevated toxin levels, the local recreation-based economy takes a huge hit.
“People are seeing that the water in streams is impaired, and they’re pointing their fingers at agriculture,” said Beck. “It has drawn a lot of attention to the watersheds underneath the fields, the agricultural practices used on ground and how the agricultural industry is working to reduce pollutants.”
Declining water quality throughout the state poses a threat of regulation for the agricultural industry. “As streams continue to be impaired, something is going to happen at the federal level and nobody wants that,” said Beck. “In my view, each voluntary conservation practice we implement works to reduce the potential for regulation.”
A challenge associated with the removal of riparian forests is that the specific landowner doesn’t directly or immediately experience the negative environmental impacts. They are shared by the people of the state in the costs of cleaning the impacted water.
“I would say think twice before cutting the trees down by your stream,” said Beck. “Tree guys tend to look 80 years into the future where farmers tend to look at what is best right now. It’s nothing bad; it’s just their business. While these past two years have been really dry, those lower areas where trees normally grow best are probably going to be drier and more apt to being farmed. In the future, if we get more moisture, that area is not going to be good to farm, it’s going to be a mess and affect water quality.”
The major economical benefit of planting riparian forests is keeping valuable soil in place and not having it washed down the stream. There are a variety of cost share programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program, where landowners can get paid rental rates for keeping soil in place. Unfortunately, Kansas has no real effective programs that encourage farmers to protect mature riparian forests.
Aside from economics, riparian forests can be aesthetically pleasing. They provide a great place to go hunting and fishing, or just watch wildlife. Many landowners like the trees along the stream banks because they keep debris out of their crop fields when the floodwaters come up.
If a landowner would like to plant a riparian forest on their land, the first step is visiting a local United States Department of Agriculture service center. Talk with the local NRCS conservationist and contact the Kansas Forest Service. They will visit the site for free to discuss the landowner’s options. They can guide the landowner through the process of going through the application and how to work with NRCS to get the trees on the ground. Foresters can also advise landowners about appropriate widths of riparian forests that should be protected to provide long-term water quality and quantity benefits to the people of Kansas.
For more information, visit the Kansas Forest Service website.