Articles | Volume 2, issue 2/3
30 Sep 1998
30 Sep 1998

The impacts of conifer harvesting on runoff water quality: a regional survey for Wales

C. Neal, B. Reynolds, J. Wilkinson, T. Hill, M. Neal, S. Hill, and M. Harrow

Abstract. Major, minor and trace element chemistry of runoff at stormflow and baseflow from 67 catchments (2 to 5 ha in area) has been determined to investigate the effects of clear felling and replanting of conifers on stream water quality across Wales. Samples, collected by local forestry workers (Forest Enterprise staff) on a campaign basis on up to eight occasions, were for 16 mature first rotation standing forest: the remainder represented areas completely clear felled from less than one to up to forty years previously. As the waters drain acidic and acid sensitive soils, acidic runoff is often encountered. However, higher pH values with associated positive alkalinities and base cation enrichments are observed due to the influence of weathering reactions within the bedrock. There is little systematic variation in water quality between baseflow and stormflow for each site indicating a complex and erratic contribution of waters from the soil and underlying parent material. 80% or more of the data points show hardly any changes with felling time, but there are a few outlier points with much higher concentrations that provide important information on the processes operative. The clearest outlier felling response is for nitrate at five of the more recently felled sites on brown earth, gley and podzolic soil types. ANC, the prime indicator of stream acidity, shows a diverse response from both high to low outlier values (>+400 to -300 μEq/l). In parallel to nitrate, aluminium, potassium and barium concentrations are higher in waters sampled up to 4 years post felling, but the time series response is even less clear than that for nitrate. Cadmium, zinc and lead and lanthanides/actinides show large variations from site to site due to localized vein ore-mineralization in the underlying bedrock.
The survey provides a strong indication that forest harvesting can have marked local effects on some chemical components of runoff for the first four years after felling but that this is confined to a small number of sites where nitrate production and aluminium leaching are high. In general, deforestation leads to a reversal of acidification when the nitrate pulse is low. The variability in water quality from catchment to catchment is too high for generalized conclusions to be made over the extent of the potential changes from site to site. The value of an organised campaign of opportunistic sampling using an infrastructure of enthusiastic staff from regionally dispersed organisations associated with environmental matters (in this case the forestry industry) is highlighted.