Long-term hydrological response to forest harvest during seasonal low flow: Potential implications for current forest practices

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
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Coble, Ashley A.; Barnard, Holly; Du, Enhao; Johnson, Sherri; Jones, Julia; Keppeler, Elizabeth; Kwon, Hyojung; Link, Timothy E.; Penaluna, Brooke E.; Reiter, Maryanne; River, Mark; Puettmann, Klaus; Wagenbrenner, Joseph. 2020. Long-term hydrological response to forest harvest during seasonal low flow: Potential implications for current forest practices. Science of The Total Environment. 730(138926): 1-17. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138926


Seasonal changes in the magnitude and duration of streamflow can have important implications for aquatic species, drinking water supplies, and water quality. In many regions, including the Pacific Northwest (U.S. and Canada), seasonal low flow is declining, primarily due to a changing climate, but is also influenced by urbanization, agriculture, and forestry. We review the responses of seasonal low flow, catchment storage, and tree-water relations to forest harvest over long timescales and discuss the potential implications of these responses for current forest practices and aquatic biota. We identify three distinct periods of expected low flow responses as regrowth occurs following forest harvest: in the first period an initial increase in low flow can occur as replanted stands regenerate, in the second period low flow is characterized by mixed and variable responses as forests become established, and in the third period, which follows canopy closure, low flow declines may occur over long timescales. Of 25 small catchments with ≥10 years post-harvest data, nine catchments had no change or variable low flow and 16 catchments experienced reduced low flow years after harvest. The retention of riparian buffers, limited size of harvest units, and adherence to reforestation requirements have altered the contemporary forest landscape relative to historical forest practices, but data documenting multi-decadal hydrological responses to current harvest practices is limited. Our review suggests that the magnitude of low flow responses attenuates downstream as a broader mosaic of stand ages occurs and multiple hydrological periods are represented. Declines were not observed in the seven large catchments reviewed. The consequences of low flow declines for aquatic biota are not well understood, but where data do exist aquatic biota have not been adversely affected. We identify priorities for future research that will aid in improving predictions of low flow responses to harvest as forests regenerate.