Effects of timber harvesting on water yield from mountain ash forests


A stream in Melbourne’s water catchment, carrying water that has flowed from mountain ash forest.

The effect of timber harvesting on water yield from mountain ash forest has been studied for decades. It is topical because mountain ash forests supply a large amount of water to Melbourne, a city of more than 4 million people.

Mountain ash forests are also the main source of wood for the timber and pulp industry in the state of Victoria. There seems to be an enduring debate about the extent to which timber harvesting influences water yields.

Let’s start with an aspect of the topic that is reasonably well resolved. Because of different rates of evapotranspiration, the amount of water that arrives in streams depends on the age of the trees. When the trees are old, their rate of growth is low, the trees are widely spaced, and water use by the forest is low; streamflow is at it highest. Immediately after a fire that kills the trees or after a timber harvesting event, water use is also low; again streamflow if high.

However, as the trees grow in dense stands, their water use increases and streamflow declines. However, some trees die as the forest ages, and the rate of water use of the survivors does not increase to compensate, and eventually water use of the forest declines again; streamflow begins to increase.

Water yield as a proportion of the maximum achievable versus the time since fire.

Water yield (as a proportion of the maximum achievable) versus the time since fire for mountain ash forest. This assumed curve is based on the “Kuczera curve”.

The change in streamflow with forest age can be represented by a curve – it is commonly referred to as the “Kuczera curve”, named after one of the researchers who first documented the relationship between forest age and water yield. Such a curve can be represented by the mathematical equation:

y(x) = 1-e^{-b x}(1-e^{-c x})

Here the water yield , y(x), is expressed as a proportion of the maximum possible yield (the yield achieved in an old growth forest or immediately after timber harvesting or a fire). The age of the forest stand is x, and the parameters b and c control the shape of the curve. I’ll use b = 0.022 and c = 0.07 for the remainder of this post*. This results in the yield curve shown above.

In this case, the water yield reaches its smallest level when the forest is about 20 years of age, at which point the yield is almost 50% less than the maximum achievable.

So, this shows that if we were able to keep the forest as old growth (or at zero years of age), then we could maximize the water yield. However, as noted in my previous post, it is overly optimistic to assume that mountain ash forest won’t burn.

The chance that a forest will survive for x years given fires occur randomly in time with a mean interval of m years is:


or equivalently the cumulative distribution function of the time of fire is:

F(x) = 1-S(x) = 1 - e^{-x/m}.

From this we can get the expected age structure from the derivative of F(x), which is defined by the probability density function:

f(x) = \dfrac{e^{-x/m}}{m}.

The above is all basic survival theory assuming a constant rate of fire with forest age (McCarthy et al. 2001, email me for a copy of the paper).

Now, we can get the expected water yield E(Y) by integrating the product of the expected age structure f(x) and the water yield curve y(x). The range of the integration is zero to infinity, which are all possible ages for the forest (OK, an infinite age is impossible – I am about to impose an upper limit on forest age via timber harvesting).

E(Y) = \int_0^\infty \! f(x)y(x) \, \mathrm{d} x.

This might look a bit complicated, but it is simply the average water yield, but it is a weighted average based on the amount of forest that is expected to be of different ages.

For the water yield curve I have used (y(x)), solving this integral leads to:

E(Y) = 1-\dfrac{1}{1+bm}+\dfrac{1}{1+(b+c)m}.

Plotting this expected yield versus the mean fire interval, we have:

Expected water yield from mountain ash forest (as a proportion of water yield from an old growth forest) versus mean fire interval

Expected water yield from mountain ash forest (as a proportion of water yield from an old growth forest) versus the mean fire interval.

So, we see that as mean fire intervals increase above about 20 years, the expected water yield increases. If we assume the average fire interval in mountain ash forests is 100 years (assuming tree-killing fires), then the expected water yield is about 20% less than that obtained for an old growth forest.

Now, the main question was about how timber harvesting might influence the water yield. The influence will occur via the effect on the forest age structure. If we assume that forests are harvested when they reach the rotation age R, then the age structure of the forest becomes truncated at R. The probability density of f(x) above the value of R needs to “redistributed” to values below R. Hence, the truncated probability density function is given by:

f_R(x) = \dfrac{e^{-x/m}}{m(1-e^{-R/m})},

Using the same logic as above, the expected water yield given a mean fire interval of m and a rotation age of R is:

E(Y_R) = \int_0^R \! f_R(x)y(x) \, \mathrm{d} x.

One can solve this integral. I’m not going to bore you with the solution – it is not particularly simple. And rather than focusing on this, I calculate the ratio:


This is the expected water yield from a forest under a rotation age of R years relative to the expected water yield of an unharvested forest. In both cases I am accounting for unplanned fires that occur with a mean interval of m years.

When p is less than 1, timber harvesting reduces the expected water yield from the forest. When p is greater than 1, timber harvesting increases water yields. Plotting the relative yield p versus the rotation age R gives:

Water yield from a harvested forest as a proportion of water yield from an unharvested forest as a function of the rotation age. This assumes that the average fire interval is 100 years.

Expected water yield from a harvested forest as a proportion of the expected water yield from an unharvested forest versus the rotation age. This assumes that the average fire interval is 100 years. The dashed line shows where the water yield from a harvested forest matches that of an unharvested forest.

This shows that as the rotation age increases above approximately 40 years, the water yield increases. Increasing the rotation age from 50 to 100 years increases expected water yield by approximately 10% in those areas exposed to timber harvesting. A further ~10% increase would be obtained by increasing the rotation age from 100 years to 200 years. At a rotation age of 200 years, the water yield is only about 5% below what would be expected in the absence of timber harvesting (but in the presence of fires).

Of course, these increases in water yield need to be weighed against the other possible benefits (e.g., more large trees for wildlife, possibly more sawlogs) and costs (e.g., fewer stands reaching rotation age due to fire) of increased rotations. Also, note that this analysis is limited to those parts of the forest exposed to timber harvesting. Effects will be moderated proportionally depending on how much of the forest is harvested.

Interestingly, water yields can be increased by reducing rotation ages below 40 years. In fact, when the rotation age is 8 years or less, timber harvesting actually increases water yield above that obtained in the absence of timber harvesting. This is because it keeps the water yield curve near it maximum at x=0. Such short rotation ages might not be feasible because sawlogs would not grow within this time. Water quality problems due to frequent harvesting might also be problematic, as might regeneration due to paucity of seed.

Given that nominal rotation ages in mountain ash forests are greater than 50 years, the right hand section of the graph is probably more relevant to the question about effects of timber harvesting on water yields. This simple model shows that it is reasonable to claim that clearfall timber harvesting reduces water yield in mountain ash forest.

*If you would like to investigate different parameters for yourself, I have created an Excel spreadsheet that does the various calculations displayed here.

In case you are interested in trying different values for the parameters b and c, note that the minimum yield occurs at x = ln[(b+c)/b]/c. At this point, the reduction in streamflow below the maximum is:

b^{b/c}c (b + c)^{-(b + c)/c}

About Michael McCarthy

I conduct research on environmental decision making and quantitative ecology. My teaching is mainly at post-grad level at The University of Melbourne.
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8 Responses to Effects of timber harvesting on water yield from mountain ash forests

  1. Regrowing Ash and other Eucalypt forests only diminish stream flow in dry growing seasons – usually spring into summer. The stream flow persistence is always diminished by logging and most severely by clear falling. Diminished stream flow persistence always diminishes the available reliable supply. Logging, especially clear falling, diminishes water quality both by increasing post rain sediment flow for a period of time and E.coli and other faecal bacteria normally neutralised in healthy and unburned leaf litter, requiring treatment at a cost to downstream domestic water users, diminishing the productivity of fisheries, oyster farms etc. These potential costs should be part of cost benefit analysis of any planned logging – especially, clear falling.

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  4. webster1808 says:

    Well I don’t expect you to really. I also have other stuff to do, and there is a body of complex hydrology science that would have to be incorporated… In my opinion at least, it’s not a simple good/bad black/white issue. Logging can contribute to habitat destruction and damage to catchments. But it can be used to increase water supply and effect ecological maintenance, however the co-operation required for that seems unlikely when we are locked into an adversarial political system for policy and decision making.



  5. webster1808 says:

    Hi Michael, What would happen to the model if for example fire regrowth stands were thinned to about 50% basal area, (or crown cover percent) at about 30 years old?

    Timber harvesting as it is carried out in Victories wet forests now, deliberately results in a patch-work of stands of different ages, which contrasts with the 10’s or 100’s of thousands of hectares all converted to regrowth simultaneously by fire. This patchwork includes reservation of significant areas of forest to protect water quality (ie.filter or buffer strips along drainage lines), rainforest, populations of animals and plants, and for many other reasons. Whereas fire just burns straight through all of these. What percentage of a catchment is actually logged and how does this change the response compared to assuming 100% logged area?

    According to “Catchment Timber Substitution Study”, prepared by URS Forestry for the Water Resources Strategy Committee for the Melbourne Area (May 2002), Just 12.8% of Melbourne’s water supply catchments are available and suitable for limited timber harvesting tightly controlled in conjunction with the Code of Forest Practices. The average annual harvested area equates to approximately 0.0018 of the total catchment area.

    I suggest based on these statistics, that logging has a very small impact on Melbourne’s water supply in comparison to fire, and therefore that if our objective is to improve water supply we would be better examining methods to decrease the total area burnt in extreme conditions and management of large areas of fire regrowth to maximise water quality/quantity.


    • Hi Murray,

      Thanks for the comment. As I mention in the post, these effects are proportional to the area that is actually available to be logged. If harvesting occurs in 12.8% of Melbourne’s water catchments, then the effects of timber harvesting will be ~12.8% of those calculated above – in that case we’re looking a few percentage points reduction in expected water yield due to timber harvesting at current rotations. It should be borne in mind, however, that water from the mountain ash forests is not just used in Melbourne. It is also used in other towns, for agriculture and for the environment.

      I’m not 100% sure of the data on thinning responses. Do you know? If the response is modest and temporary (and further mitigated by the small area that is treatable), the effects would be smaller than the effects of timber harvesting.



      • webster1808 says:

        The relationship between stand manipulation and stream flow has been confirmed by hydrological research conducted throughout Australia. One 1980s trial of strip thinning in 43 year old ash regrowth in Melbourne Water’s North Maroondah experimental area produced increased run-off equating to 2.5 ML per year for each hectare of thinned forest. (The Effects of Strip Thinning on Forest Growth in the Ettercon Catchments, Report No. MMBW-W-0019, by RG. Benyon, Melbourne Water, 1992).
        This immediately increased stream flow by 26% which was persisting 10 years later. (The Crotty Creek Project: The effects of strip thinning Eucalyptus regnans on forest growth and water yield, by Benyon and Lucas, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Forest Service Research Report No. 358 / Melbourne Water Report No. MMBW-W-0020, 1993).

        There’s bound to be more studies out there.

    • Implementing the influence of increased water yield from thinning at around age 40-75 years (approximate current age of 1939 regrowth) would require a different functional form to accommodate that increase – sorry, I have no time to do that just now! It would make a difference though I suspect.

      Speaking of thinning, creating more patchy regeneration from a young age (pre-commercial) might be worth thinking about for both water yield and growing larger trees with more branching. The impact on timber quality would also need to be considered here, but larger trees with more branches are likely to develop hollows more quickly. This is something that I have heard Patrick Baker discuss – an interesting idea.

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