Residents stopped OWASA from harvesting trees before. Water utility will try again.

Conserving vast acres of forestland has helped OWASA provide Chapel Hill and Carrboro with decades of clean drinking water, while keeping plant and wildlife habitats intact.

So when the Orange Water and Sewer Authority announced it was going to thin, clear-cut or burn roughly 1,900 acres of forest in 2010, hundreds of rural Orange County residents forced the utility to hit the brakes.

Many were already wary of the nonprofit utility, which owns roughly 3,700 acres in Orange County, including 2,400 acres of forestland and three current or future drinking water reservoirs.

The rocky relationship stretches back to the early 1980s, when farmland and properties were taken — under threat and one by eminent domain — and flooded to build the 500-acre Cane Creek Reservoir. Critics of the forestry management plan wondered why OWASA would risk water quality by bringing in heavy equipment and herbicide. They suspected the real reason was the money that lay in harvesting the timber.

OWASA officials explained that they had consulted with the N.C. Division of Forest Resources and N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, which recommended tree clearing to help sustain wildlife and guard against pine beetle infestations, disease, drought and fire.

The plan’s architect, True North Forest Management Services, wasn’t going to harvest the timber, OWASA said, but would maintain a list of logging companies to do the work. Some of the proceeds from each timber sale would pay to plant new trees.

Residents suggested instead that OWASA form a citizens advisory committee; study water quality, habitat and species diversity; and consult with state water agencies. OWASA officials shelved the plan.

Slow, healthy growth

On Thursday, OWASA will restart the conversation with a public information meeting and small-group discussions at the Maple View Agricultural Education Center on Dairyland Road.

They’re going to move more slowly this time, starting with a few high-priority tracts, said Ruth Rouse, planning and development manager. Neighbors will be able to share their knowledge, ideas and concerns before and after the first plan is drafted, she said, and OWASA will evaluate each step taken before developing the next, targeted management plan.

Rouse said she could have an update for OWASA’s Board of Directors in August; there is no timeline for approving a plan or starting the work. The forests will be prioritized, in part, by their shared characteristics, geography and the health of individual stands, she said.

“It could take a while,” Rouse said. “(On) some of our land, too, the only management we’re going to do is monitor it to make sure that it’s remaining healthy.”

The key to promoting healthy forests with oaks for wildlife shelter and food is eliminating the competition from faster-growing trees, said Jennifer Roach, N.C. Forest Service district forester for eight Triangle counties.

“The sweetgum and maple are very fast-growing species of trees, and when you have a lot of sunlight, they take over, whereas the oaks need a little bit of help sometimes,” Roach said. “The shelterwood harvest is one of those where you slowly open up the stand canopy and try to encourage that oak regeneration to start to germinate, so that the acorns will germinate and grow.”

Forest management model

Recently released reports show how a state-approved management plan affected one 491-acre tract that OWASA has managed for nine years in western Orange County, officials said.

In 2010, True North thinned roughly 25 acres of hardwoods at the Cane Creek Reservoir Mitigation Tract near Buckhorn and Mt. Willing roads. A nearby, 25-acre pine forest was clear-cut before being replanted with loblolly pines in 2011. Herbicides were applied to some species to give the oak and hickory trees a chance to grow.

In 2012, OWASA, the N.C. Forestry Service and the Wildlife Resources Commission toured the site to see how an “actively managed” forest looks.

The work continued a few years later, when a logging road and stream crossing were built to reach the rest of the tract, and in 2014, True North thinned another 200 acres before replanting more loblolly and shortleaf pines. In 2016, more trees were planted in those areas, and pines planted in 2011 were thinned.

Last year, the N.C. Forest Service conducted a prescribed burn on 24 acres. The logging road has since been replanted with native grasses, Rouse said.

Wildlife, trees and water

Data collected at OWASA’s Buckhorn tract and five unrelated, Triangle area forestry sites showed the total suspended solids — dirt and other particles in the water — rose upstream and downstream of the Buckhorn tract by an insignificant amount after the harvests.

Suspended solids can harm water quality and habitat by increasing water temperatures and reducing the amount of available oxygen.

There also were more heavy storms — and potentially more runoff — during the study period, which could have affected the results, the agencies noted.

The Forest Service checks water quality and management activities during and after any work being done, Roach said. Although she hasn’t been out to Buckhorn in a year, she walked the tract multiple times during the harvests, she said, and it “looks pretty good.”

“You can do forest management without having a negative impact to the water quality,” Roach said. “We do like trees, and we do like water, and we want to promote that for more healthy, sustainable forest conditions (and) to get to that more resilient forest that we’re going to need as we continue through this climate change that is being predicted and projected in the long term.”

The U.S. Forest Service reports that the cleanest water comes from healthy forests and watersheds. About two-thirds of the nation’s fresh water comes from forestland, the report stated.

Forest cover slows the effect of increasing temperatures, reducing water evaporation, and also helps to stem erosion from heavier and more frequent storms expected with climate change. Forests also capture and store water, replenishing groundwater and reservoirs.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission officers who toured the site five years after the first harvest reported seeing 23 species of birds and wildlife in just a few hours. The 2014 harvest damaged few preserved trees, NCWRC technical assistance biologist Kelly Douglass said.

She noted the NCWRC team was impressed with how the company built and managed the stream crossing to protect water quality and with the number of “snags,” dead or dying trees left standing to provide wildlife habitat and food.

“Each time I visit the Buckhorn Game Land, as the forest management practices continue, I notice a higher abundance and a greater diversity of wildlife species on the property,” Douglass said. “You can truly see the goals of the Forest Stewardship Plan, related to promoting habitat diversity, encouraging the establishment of native plants, and promoting wildlife diversity, in action.”

What’s next

The Orange Water and Sewer Authority will hold a community meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 20, at the Maple View Agricultural Education Center, located at 3501 Dairyland Road, south of Hillsborough.

OWASA asks those who plan to attend to contact administrative assistant Alicia Grey at agrey@owasa.org or 919-537-4296, so that she can have enough facilitators and seats for everyone.

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.