Clearcuts and climate change: Oregon drinking water supplies under siege

This week, Center for Sustainable Economy (CSE) and ten other watershed advocates filed protests with nineteen public water system managers across western Oregon asking them to use their legal authority and discretion to halt over 26,000 acres of clearcuts planned in drinking water supplies this summer and fall. As documented in the protest letters, decades of industrial logging activities have depleted water supplies, elevated water temperatures, increased wildfire risk, increased the incidence and severity of landslides and increased the risk of floods and harmful algae blooms. These stressors are already on the rise due to climate change. Clearcutting, dense networks of logging roads and timber plantations are making things worse. CSE and its partners contend that Governor Brown’s Executive Order 20-04, the Public Trust Doctrine and other laws compel the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and public watershed managers to intervene and be active in fighting these threats.

According to the ‘FERNS’ database managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry over 85,000 acres of clearcuts are planned for western Oregon this year. Of these, 50,991 acres of clearcuts are planned in public drinking watersheds. According to Samantha Krop, CSE’s Wild and Working Forests Campaign Manager, “For communities who get their drinking water from rivers and streams that wind through forestland, these clearcut practices pose a significant threat to future water security in the face of a changing climate.”

All told, there are more clearcuts currently happening or planned in the city of Wilsonville’s drinking water supply than any other water supply in the state of Oregon. Wilsonville gets its drinking water from the Willamette River, which, unlike most other rivers in the region, flows south to north, from its headwaters in the spring systems of the McKenzie River to its convergence with the Columbia River. Located on the northernmost end of a large drinking water supply area that extends from Corvallis north along the Willamette River, the 24,000 residents of Wilsonville are the recipients of all surface drinking water pollution that originates 100 miles upstream. In total, 4,079 acres of clearcuts are planned in this surface drinking watershed for Wilsonville residents.

Timber giant Weyerhauser is by far the worst clearcutting culprit in the state of Oregon, currently planning 873 acres of clearcuts in Wilsonville’s water supply alone. Following the infamous timber giant is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which executes clearcuts under the euphemism “regeneration harvests” in public lands across the state.

But when it comes to clearcutting in Wilsonville’s water supply, Oregon State University’s (OSU) college of forestry cannot be left off the list of worst offenders. Currently, OSU is planning 127 acres of clearcuts in the McDonald-Dunn research forest, located at the southern base of Wilsonville’s water supply area. Last year OSU forest managers came under fire for clearcutting a stand of ancient trees in the McDonald-Dunn forest after community activists unexpectedly stumbled upon the clearcut during a hike. While OSU’s interim Dean of Forestry responded by committing to halt further clearcutting in the old forests it manages, from OSU’s current plans it is clear that the practice of clearcutting remains commonplace in their research forests, even in the drinking watershed of Oregonians.

The deleterious effects of clearcutting on public drinking water supplies are well known, especially by the OSU forestry department. Oregon State University itself has produced leading research tying clearcut-plantation style management to increased stream sedimentation, higher stream temperatures and decreased stream flow.  Given this, residents of Wilsonville have every right to ask why OSU is continuing to clearcut for research in their water supply.Homepage-feature

This is the second year CSE and its partners have challenged clearcuts planned for Oregon’s drinking watersheds. CSE is consulting with legal experts to investigate ways to force public watershed managers to take action based on these protests. CSE is also active in promoting legislative solutions. In 2019, Rep. Andrea Salinas (Lake Oswego) and Rep. Karin Power (Portland) sponsored the “Safe Waters Act of 2019,” a bill that would significantly curtail clearcutting and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in Oregon’s drinking water supplies. Coupled with newfound momentum from EO 20-04, we are hopeful that many more members will follow their lead and join the fight during the 2021 legislative session.

By Samantha Krop and John Talberth

Read sample protest letters:

City of Wilsonville

City of Corvallis

City of Lebanon

City of Cottage Grove

City of Myrtle Creek

1 thought on “Clearcuts and climate change: Oregon drinking water supplies under siege”

  1. Please help with the Biosolids being dumped on fields along the Siletz River.It is compromising the drinking water for Newport,Seal Rock, and Toledo.


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