Forested lands dominate drinking water supply in the conterminous United States

Ning Liu, Peter V. Caldwell, G. Rebecca Dobbs, Chelcy Ford Miniat, Paul V. Bolstad, Stacy A.C. Nelson, Ge Sun

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Forests provide the most stable and highest quality water supplies among all land uses. Quantitatively evaluating the benefits of forest water supply functions is important to effectively mitigate the impacts of land development, climate change, and population growth. Here, by integrating a water balance model and national drinking water data, we determined the amount of surface water yield originating on different forest ownership types at a fine resolution (88,000 watersheds) and tracked that water through the river network to drinking water intakes and the populations they serve. We found that forested lands comprised 36% of the total land area but contributed 50% of the total surface water yield. Of the 23,983 public surface drinking water intakes depending on surface water sources, 89% (serving around 150 million people) received some (>0.01%) surface water from forested lands, and 38% (serving about 60 million people) received more than 50% of their surface drinking water supply from forested lands. Privately-owned forests were the most important water source in the eastern U.S., benefiting 16 million people, followed by federal forests (14.4% of the total water supply). In contrast, federally-owned forested lands were the dominant water source (52% of the total water supply) in the West. Privately-owned forests are the most vulnerable to future land use change and associated water supply impacts. Continuing programs that support private forest landowners with financial and technical assistance through federal and state forest management agencies and potentially developing payment for ecosystem service schemes could maximize benefits for landowners so they may retain their land assets while minimizing forest loss and associated impacts on critical ecosystem services including the provisioning a clean and reliable water supply for the American public.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number084008
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jul 22 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, Southern Research Station and the Southern Group of State Foresters (SGSF) by agreement number 18-JV-11330140-007 to Dr Stacy Nelson at North Carolina State University, and USDA Forest Service, Washington Office, Water and Aquatic Resources by agreement number 17-CS-11330140-028 to Dr Paul Bolstad at the University of Minnesota. We also want to thank Drs C Rhett Jackson, Georgina Sanchez, James Vose, Matthew J Cohen, Brian Richter, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd


  • Drinking water
  • Forest ownership
  • Hydrologic modeling
  • WaSSI
  • Water supply
  • Water yield


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