Monday, September 18, 2023

Water and Forests

Blog 35

Indigenous people have been standing up to protect water for decades — because to them, is more than just hydration. Water is alive and holds a spirit. Water is sacred.

It's the lifeblood that flows through lakes, rivers and oceans, fosters important ecosystems and has been used for transportation since time immemorial. 

In 2003, Anishnaabe Elder Josephine Mandamin took her first ceremonial water walk around Lake Superior. She wanted to share a message: the water is sick and people need to speak, love and fight for it.

Shirley Williams, an Anishinaabe elder from Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, along with her niece Elizabeth Osawamick, have since followed in Mandamin's footsteps. They've been organizing annual water walks around the Kawartha region of Ontario since 2010.

"Water is the first thing that the Creator made, and it's the water where we were born," said Williams. 

"We pray for that water because water is a living thing. It's not a commodity. We look at it as a spiritual element."

Role of forests in water health The forest cover slows down erosion and delays the release of water into streams, helping stabilize the quality and quantity of water in the area. Forests recharge and maintain the quality of groundwater.

How much water does a forest get?
During the growing period the amount of water required for forest vegetation can be assumed with an average of 3 mm per day.
Do forests absorb a lot of water?
Forests filter and regulate the flow of water, in large part due to their leafy canopy that intercepts rainfall, slowing its fall to the ground and the forest floor, which acts like an enormous sponge, typically absorbing up to 18 inches of precipitation (depending on soil composition) before gradually releasing it.

As our landscape changes, it begins to have an impact on stream health. What we do on or to the land affects both the quantity (volume) and quality (pollutant levels) of the water in our streams and lakes. The land area through which any water moves, or drains, to reach a stream is called a watershed.

As we begin to remove forest canopy and replace it with roads, parking lots, driveways, homes, patios, pools (impervious surfaces) and even grass, we immediately have impact on watersheds and receiving streams (or lakes). With the increased amount of impervious surfaces, water runs off the land, traveling on the surface towards the streams. As this 'storm water runoff' travels to the streams it collects pollutants and increases speed. The changes to the landscape, not only increase the volume of water that goes to the stream, it also shortens the amount of time it takes the water to get to the stream. These increased or peak flows cause water to move quickly to the streams. This leads to flooding, stream bank erosion, widening of streams, sediment deposited in streams, a loss of fish habitat, and decline in water quality. In Pennsylvania there are over 12,200 miles of polluted streams and over 3,000 miles of streams that are impaired by storm water runoff.

So how do we protect water quality and our streams as watersheds change?

Trees and forests play an incredible role in reducing storm water in several ways and removing or filtering pollutants that would otherwise wind up in our waterways.

  One Forest Service Researcher has stated that planting large canopy trees over impervious surfaces, such as a parking lot or street has much greater impact on reducing storm water (up to 8 times greater) because it works to reduce peak flows in urban settings.

Pollutant Removal and Phytoremediation

Plants, especially woody plants, are very good at removing nutrients (nitrates and phosphates) and contaminates (such as metals, pesticides, solvents, oils and hydrocarbons) from soil and water. These pollutants are either used for growth (nutrients) or are stored in wood. In one study, a single sugar maple growing roadside removed 60mg of cadmium, 140mg of chromium, 820mg of nickel, and 5200mg of lead in a single growing season (Coder, 1996). Studies in Maryland showed reductions of up to 88% of nitrate and 76% of phosphorus after agricultural runoff passed through a forest buffer.

In comparison, studies of residential lawns have shown overuse of chemical fertilizers (over 100 million tons applied to lawns annually) and synthetic pesticides (80 million pounds applied to lawns annually - 10 times the rate per acre used by farmers - Yale graduate study). Excess nutrients from lawns and agricultural fields is one of the largest sources of non-point pollutants that is impacting water quality in our streams, rivers, lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.

 In older existing communities, increasing tree canopy cover along streets, in yards and in parking lots can have a positive impact on our watersheds. Planting large canopy trees (where growing space permits) provide the most benefit - 8 times that of small maturing trees,

For Native American, then, as for most indigenous spirituality, water retains an honored and indispensable place, an actual force as well as symbolic image of life and death, creation and destruction, nourishment and deprivation: water exists as an autonomous and primeval element to be encountered with humility.

First Nations are continuously striving to fulfill their responsibilities to care for the waters. The “Water Declaration of the Anshinabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe” drafted by the Chiefs of Ontario in 2008 and adopted by the Chiefs in Assembly emphasizes the caretaking role of Indigenous peoples with regard to water and recognizes the special responsibility of Indigenous women to talk and care for water. This responsibility finds an illustration in the “Mother Earth Water Walk” movement or in the activism of groups such as Akii Kwe. The traditional and spiritual knowledge driving those groups is slowly being integrated in Indigenous decision-making processes, as shown through the foundation of the Anishinabek Women’s Water Commission in 2008. It is hoped that, through its work, the Commission will influence government agencies to go beyond the “techno-fix” and to meaningfully include Anishinabek insights directed at finding long-term solutions for the current water crisis and the protection of the Great Lakes and other waters. 

While Indigenous worldviews regarding water are far from homogenous, some traditional beliefs and attitudes towards water are widely shared across Nations. As part of a submission to the 2000 Walkerton Inquiry, the Chiefs of Ontario have collectively shared the views that water is a living being with its own spirit. Water is life and as such is sacred and respected as a relative. Water is part of a greater, interconnected whole; therefore, a focus on just drinking water is misguided. One must consider all that to which water is connected. In keeping with this traditional perspective, water is not about “use” but rather about proper relationships. Because water is recognized as a living spiritual force, one’s relationship with water should be based on respect and an ethics of thanksgiving and should fulfill specific responsibilities. Proper relationships to water ensure that water is, in turn, able to fulfill its responsibilities. Those views entail that planning for water governance must take a long-term approach where knowledge about water is shared, with respect of the special role of women to speak for the water and with an emphasis on using the original Indigenous names of the waters. 






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