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How a beer maker and a bottled water company want to save Sierra forests

State firefighters remove dead trees in a Sierra Nevada forest near Cressman in June. A project will test whether forest thinning will allow creeks and rivers to be replenished.
State firefighters remove dead trees in a Sierra Nevada forest near Cressman in June. A project will test whether forest thinning will allow creeks and rivers to be replenished. The Associated Press

California’s forests are in crisis. A lethal combination of drought, wildfires, warmer temperatures and pests has destroyed 66 million trees in the past six years.

Restoring our forests won’t be easy. Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature recognized the importance and magnitude of the task by allocating $40 million in cap-and-trade funds. At the same time, President Barack Obama visited Lake Tahoe to announce $29.5 million to improve forest health and decrease the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

They’re prioritizing these investments because they know that California’s forests are critical to our water supply. Forests help reduce erosion and recharge aquifers.

Government funding is vital, but it’s not enough. We need innovative thinking and support from private partners with resources and expertise, such as a recently launched effort in the Sierra Nevada, one of the most important sources of water for drought-stricken California.

The new project spearheaded by the Nature Conservancy is using more than 10,000 acres at the American River headwaters to test methods to reduce megafires and increase the water supply. Forests in the American River watershed, like many throughout the Sierra, are overly dense with brush and small trees, increasing the risk of megafires that threaten not only lives and property, but also downstream water quality and quantity.

The project will test whether ecologically based forest thinning will allow snowfall and rain to accumulate and replenish creeks and rivers. Success could be translated to other areas and used to improve forest and watershed management throughout the Sierra Nevada and beyond.

This project is also a bellwether for how we fund the innovation necessary to secure our water future. It is being supported by public agencies and by the private sector, including Nestlé Waters North America and MillerCoors. The companies are part of the California Water Action Collaborative, a group of 20 leading environmental organizations and food and beverage companies that this month announced collaborative investments in the American Rivers project and three others to protect California’s water supply.

We are doing this because we know that while no one company or organization can solve California’s water challenges, together we can and must take responsibility for the future of our communities and natural resources. With thoughtful investment supporting the creative ideas that will drive innovative solutions, we can secure the state’s water future.

Jonah Smith is sustainability manager at MillerCoors and can be contacted at sustainability@millercoors.com. Nelson Switzer is chief sustainability officer at Nestlé Waters North America and can be contacted at sustainability@waters.nestle.com.

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