Forested lands dominate drinking water supply in the conterminous United States
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.