Effects of timber harvest on water quantity and quality in small watersheds in the Piedmont of North Carolina


This paired watershed study tested the effects of timber harvest on water quantity and quality in the North Carolina Piedmont physiographic region. Four headwater watersheds at Hill Demonstration Forest (HF1, HF2, HFW1, and HFW2) and two at Umstead Research Farm (UF1 and UF2) were continuously monitored for discharge and water quality from 2007 to 2013. The HF1 and UF1 watersheds were clearcut (treatment), leaving a 15.2-m vegetated riparian buffer around the streams to protect water quality as described in the North Carolina Neuse River Basin Riparian Buffer Rule. HF2 and UF2 were uncut and used as reference watersheds. Merchantable timber was selectively removed from the riparian buffer, reducing tree basal area by 27% in HF1 and 48% in UF1. HF1 and HF2 were nested within HFW1; thus, HFW1 was considered a partial cut where 33% of the watershed area was harvested, and HFW2 was the reference. We found that discharge in treatment watersheds increased dramatically, averaging 240% in HF1 and 200% in UF1 and 40% in HFW1 during the postharvest period, 2011-2013. Total suspended sediment export in the treatment watersheds also increased significantly in HF1 after harvest, probably due to the increase of discharge and movement of in-channel legacy sediment. Stormflow peak nitrate reached its maximum concentration during the first 2 years after harvest in the treatment watersheds and then declined, corresponding to the rapid regrowth of woody and herbaceous plants in the riparian buffer and uplands. We found that 36% of the UF1 streambank trees were blown down but did not cause a measurable increase in mean daily stormflow total suspended sediment concentration. Most buffer tree blowdown occurred during the first few years after a harvest. Bioclassification of benthic macroinvertebrates indicated that stream water quality remained good/fair to excellent in the treatment watersheds after the harvest. We conclude that the temporary increases in discharge were relatively large for the Piedmont region compared with those for other regions in the southeastern United States. However, the increases in channel sediment transport and nutrient exports associated with the hydrologic change did not have a measurable impact on the indicators of aquatic invertebrate community health or bioclassification rankings

supplement to document

  • Citation: Boggs, Johnny; Sun, Ge; McNulty, Steven. 2015. Effects of timber harvest on water quantity and quality in small watersheds in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Journal of Forestry. 14 p. 10.5849/jof.14-102
  • Keywords: riparian buffer, best management practices, hydrology, water quality, North Carolina Piedmont
  • Posted Date: August 27, 2015
  • Modified Date: January 22, 2021
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