Many scientists say intense wildfires, like the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon, underscore the urgency for forest restoration. Hydrogeologist Abe Springer studies how forest treatments, like thinning and prescribed burns, are impacting natural water systems. He say 80-85 percent of precipitation evaporates or transpires in northern Arizona's over crowded forests. Most of the rest runs off with very little left to recharge the aquifers.
Springer says, "studies have shown that when you do restoration treatment on typical forests in this region, you reduce the amount of evaporation and transportation by about 15%."
Springer says improved technology is helping Northern Arizona University researchers better understand the current and restored forest structure as it relates to hydrologic processes. One new tool is a remotely controlled drone, soon to be hovering in the forest around Flagstaff.
"It's small," Springer says, "but it will carry some instruments that we can do low-elevation observing, topography, forest structure, forest canopy, leaf area. So, we do types of measurements on intermediate scales that we've never done before."
What's really important for forest restoration and water yield, he says, is not just the overall treatment of trees, but a very careful design of where there are clumps and openings Springer says identifying forest health treatments that decrease the size and intensity of future wildfires, and also improve surface and ground water systems, is critical now and into the future as our climate warms, and evaporation rates increase.