Oregon Watersheds:

Many Activities Contribute to Increased Turbidity During Large Storms

RCED-98-220: Published: Jul 29, 1998. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on five municipal watersheds in Oregon and the activities that contribute to increased turbidity during large storms, focusing on the: (1) human activities that may have contributed to the high turbidity levels in western Oregon's municipal watersheds in February 1996; and (2) efforts under way by federal, state, local, and private land managers and owners, as well as the affected cities, to ensure safe drinking water during future storms.

GAO noted that: (1) human activities--timber harvests and related roads as well as agricultural, industrial, urban, and residential development--can contribute to elevated sediment levels during large storms; (2) these activities result in soil that is compacted, paved, covered, or cleared of most vegetation; (3) rain falling on compacted or cleared soil can run off into streams, carrying with it eroded topsoil; (4) in addition, rain falling on roofs, paved roads and parking lots, and other covered surfaces does not penetrate into the ground, thereby increasing the runoff that moves across barren or disturbed soil and eroding topsoil; (5) this sediment can then be transported into streams; (6) the sediment from human activities in a municipal watershed, combined with the accelerated erosion that naturally occurs during storms, can shut down a municipality's water treatment system, as occurred in Salem in February 1996; (7) ongoing federal and nonfederal efforts have made significant progress in: (a) mitigating the impact of human activities on water quality and ensuring safe drinking water to cities in the Willamette and Lower Columbia river basins; and (b) involving more key landowners and other stakeholders in discussing, understanding, and addressing watershed issues and concerns and in implementing restoration plans; and (8) nevertheless, some key landowners have not been included in coordination efforts, and many efforts could benefit from a better understanding of, and data on, the condition of the watersheds.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On January 26, 1999, USDA OIG informed GAO that the Department agrees that the Forest Service, during forest planning and project level planning, should strive to include, in meaningful ways, all landowners within municipal watersheds. The OIG stated that the Forest Service is reviewing and updating existing memorandums of understanding for the five cities in GAO's review with the aim of being fully inclusive with all landowners and interested parties. As of February 1999, the Willamette National Forest had started renegotiating its memorandum of understanding with the City of Salem to include other landowners and stakeholders within the North Santiam River Watershed. As of August 1999, the City of Salem, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other large landowners had signed a new memorandum of understanding for lands within the North Santiam River Watershed.

    Recommendation: To increase the efficiency and effectiveness of efforts to improve water quality and ensure safe drinking water to cities in western Oregon, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to include key landowners--who are critical to understanding and addressing the condition of a watershed--in memorandums of understanding with cities and in other agreements to address watershed issues and concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Salem District Office of BLM had started negotiating to join into the memorandum of understanding between the City of Salem and the U.S. Forest Service. The Salem District Office was to be a partner in this memorandum of understanding along with other landowners within the North Santiam River Watershed. As of August 1999, the City of Salem, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other large landowners had signed a new memorandum of understanding for lands within the North Santiam River Watershed. In commenting on a draft of this, the Department of Interior agreed with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To increase the efficiency and effectiveness of efforts to improve water quality and ensure safe drinking water to cities in western Oregon, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to include key landowners--who are critical to understanding and addressing the condition of a watershed--in memorandums of understanding with cities and in other agreements to address watershed issues and concerns.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: BLM in western Oregon is updating and revising already completed watersheds to incorporate these recommendations. In addition, dialogues about management of these watersheds are continuing to grow. BLM has joined with the Forest Service and a partnership of agencies and academia to develop a technical paper on the effects of land management practices on forested municipal watersheds on drinking water quality. BLM had implemented several collaborative efforts within the McKenzie River Watershed to gather data on watershed conditions, including a joint storm monitoring program with the McKenzie River Watershed Council. The agency is also participating, in a watershed council effort to develop data standards and a common database for the watershed. In addition, the Salem District Office of BLM is helping to implement a monitoring program with the Salem, the Forest Service and other landowners within the North Santiam River Watershed to monitor and report on conditions within that watershed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, BLM, to take the following actions when conducting watershed analysis: (1) at a minimum, gather data on municipal water quality that are comparable with the data gathered by other federally funded analyses; (2) when feasible, include water quality as a primary focus and/or conduct the analyses along the boundaries of the municipal watersheds; (3) to the extent possible, collaborate with nonfederal land managers and owners to gather data that are comparable; and (4) when practical, develop data on the impact of new timber-harvesting methods and road construction practices on water quality.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service in western Oregon is updating and revising already completed watersheds to incorporate these recommendations. In addition, dialogues about management of these watersheds are continuing to grow. The Service is leading a partnership of agencies and academia to develop a technical paper on the effects of land management practices on forested municipal watersheds on drinking water quality. The Willamette National Forest implemented several collaborative efforts within the McKenzie River Watershed to gather data on watershed conditions, including a joint storm monitoring program with the McKenzie River Watershed Council. The agency is also participating in a watershed council effort to develop data standards and a common database for the watershed. In addition, the Willamette National Forest is implementing a monitoring program with Salem, BLM, and other landowners within the North Santiam River Watershed to monitor and report on conditions within that watershed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, BLM, to take the following actions when conducting watershed analysis: (1) at a minimum, gather data on municipal water quality that are comparable with the data gathered by other federally funded analyses; (2) when feasible, include water quality as a primary focus and/or conduct the analyses along the boundaries of the municipal watersheds; (3) to the extent possible, collaborate with nonfederal land managers and owners to gather data that are comparable; and (4) when practical, develop data on the impact of new timber-harvesting methods and road construction practices on water quality.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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