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Environ. Sci. Technol.

2009, 43, 7324–7330

total water use is likely to be higher for forests than for other
Assessment of Land Use Impact on land uses both in wet and in dry climates, as a consequence
Water-Related Ecosystem Services of the higher capacity of trees to evapotranspire (1, 6-8).
This results in a reduced total water outflow and low flow
Capturing the Integrated of forests when compared with most other land uses, as
confirmed by paired catchments studies (7).
Terrestrial-Aquatic System With rainfall and water availability likely to decrease in
a context of climate change and rising human demand,
WOUTER H. MAES,† particularly in the regions where water is already scarce (9),
GRIET HEUVELMANS,‡ AND the pressure on water resources will dramatically increase
B A R T M U Y S * ,† in the next decades (10).
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Division Forest, Nature and This contributes to an environmental view on forests as
Landscape Celestijnenlaan 200E10-2411, B-3001 Leuven, big consumers of the already oversolicited local water budget,
Belgium, and Vlaamse Milieumaatschappij, Koning Albert II switching the enthusiasm for wide scale afforestation in the
Laan 20 bus 16, B-1000 Brussels, Belgium second half of the twentieth century to a present-day forest
skepticism.
Received February 27, 2009. Revised manuscript received The question arises whether this skepticism is scientifically
July 22, 2009. Accepted August 4, 2009. better founded than the previous afforestation-enthusiasm.
First of all, older plantations and indigenous forests, par-
ticularly when old-growth, generally consume less water than
vigorously growing plantations (6, 7). Furthermore the
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Although the importance of green (evaporative) water flows expected suppression of plant and forest water use due to
in delivering ecosystem services has been recognized, most increased levels of atmospheric CO2 is already noticeable by
increased freshwater levels at catchment level (11, 12).
operational impact assessment methods still focus only on blue
Additionally, forests also have positive effects on water
water flows. In this paper, we present a new model to flows. Apart from some exceptions (6, 8), erosion rates
evaluate the effect of land use occupation and transformation from forests are in general very low, and water quality is
on water quantity. Conceptually based on the supply of good (6). Thanks to the high infiltration rate, forests
ecosystem services by terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the generally reduce peak flows and floods, though this effect
model is developed for, but not limited to, land use impact is minimal during more extreme (and damaging) peak flows
assessment in life cycle assessment (LCA) and requires a minimum and at larger scale (1).
amount of input data. Impact is minimal when evapotranspiration Limitations of the Blue Water Approach. Approaching
is equal to that of the potential natural vegetation, and forests from a mere water consumption point of view arises
maximal when evapotranspiration is zero or when it exceeds from a conventional yet simplistic view on water flows, in
which only the visible water resources, those that are
a threshold value derived from the concept of environmental water
immediately available for mankind, are considered useful
requirement. Three refinements to the model, requiring more
and are accounted for. In this so-called “blue water approach”
input data, are proposed. The first refinement considers a minimal all water flows in rivers, lakes and aquifers are taken into
impact over a certain range based on the boundary account, while all water in water vapor flows, referred to as
evapotranspiration of the potential natural vegetation. In the “green water”, is ignored (13).
second refinement the effects of evaporation and transpiration This blue water approach hampers a sustainable man-
are accounted for separately, and in the third refinement a agement of water flows (14). With only 20% of the world’s
more correct estimate of evaporation from a fully sealed surface crop land irrigated, 5% in subSaharan Africa, green water
is incorporated. The simplicity and user friendliness of the flow on croplands is estimated to be 4 times that of
proposed impact assessment method are illustrated with two consumptive blue water flow (14). Terrestrial ecosystems
examples. depend almost entirely on the green water flow for their
productivity and functioning, and the annual green water
1. Introduction flow (69.600 km3 · year-1 (15)) exceeds the blue water flow
Forests and Water. For a long time, forests were believed to (42.000 km3 · year-1 (16)).
act as sponges, absorbing large quantities of water and Ecosystem Services of Green and Blue Water Flow. Green
releasing them slowly, resulting in more constant water water flow is indispensable for the functioning and stability
outflow, with more water becoming available for human use. of terrestrial ecosystems (17). Apart from being an essential
The assumed positive hydrological effect, together with im- building block of biomass, water is lost as an inevitable
proved soil protection, timber production, and socio-economic consequence of stomatal opening for photosynthesis. Besides
development, formed the rationale behind several large-scale these obvious links between transpiration flow and produc-
afforestation programmes in degraded areas in the second half tion, transpiration, as medium for nutrient uptake and flow
of the twentieth century (1-3). Until recently, possible envi- through the plants, is the key process in ecosystem control
ronmental side effects of these afforestation programmes were over water, nutrient, and sediment flows (17, 18).
largely ignored, with all due consequences (4, 5). Trees owe their larger capacity to evapotranspire to their
Contrary to earlier belief, although forest soils generally deep rooting depth and bigger leaf area (19). These two
have a higher infiltration rate than soils of other land uses, features and the green water flow they generate are the main
drivers of life support processes and terrestrial ecosystem
services.
* Corresponding author phone: +32 16 329726; fax: +32 16 329760;
e-mail: Bart.muys@ees.kuleuven.be. Deep rooting improves nutrient and water availability for

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. the entire ecosystem through vertical uplifting (20) and

Vlaamse Milieumaatschappij. hydraulic lift (21-23) and provides opportunities for carbon
7324 9 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY / VOL. 43, NO. 19, 2009 10.1021/es900613w CCC: $40.75  2009 American Chemical Society
Published on Web 08/24/2009
sequestration (24). Likewise, the high leaf area and associated (40). Hence, we use natural flow regime as the discharge
layered canopy structure drive ecosystem services as air level at which aquatic ecosystem services are maximal.
filtering, habitat creation, nutrient redistribution, and erosion The terrestrial ecosystem corresponding with the concept
control (18, 25). of absence of human disturbance is generally known as the
The combined effect of canopy structure and evapo- shifting-mosaic steady state or potential natural vegetation
transpiration creates a steady microclimate (26, 27), providing (PNV). Even though biomass and control over nutrient flow
the forest system the conditions needed to maintain forest- are not necessarily maximal at this stage, the PNV can be
related biodiversity (17, 28). Hence, green water flow is used interpreted as the stage in which ecosystem services are
to create a self-organizing complex system and facilitates maximal, because it is the stage with the highest habitat
the forests’ resilience to disturbances (17, 29). According to diversity, resistance, and resilience of all succession phases
some authors, tropical forest systems self-sustain their climate (47).
at a much larger scale (30), by increasing the local precipita- Impact Assessment Method. The indicator on which the
tion through a change in roughness length and through higher impact assessment method is based is evaporative flow. The
transpiration (30-32). impact of a land use that evapotranspires the same amount
Valuing Ecosystem Services. There is growing awareness of water as the PNV is minimal, and more transpiration than
of the central role ecosystem services play in supporting the this level would not lead to better terrestrial ecosystem
human well-being and of the need to incorporate these assets services. When green water flow is 0, no ecosystem services
in the economy (e.g., refs 33-35). Costanza et al. (36) are fulfilled, and the impact on the terrestrial ecosystem is
investigated the global value of forest ecosystem services maximal.
and estimated that tropical and temperate forests deliver a For the sake of simplicity, we use linear relationships to
mean of 2007 and 302 $U.S. · ha-1 · year-1 of ecosystem calculate impacts. The impact of a land use on the terrestrial
services, respectively. Estimates by other authors are of the (green) water flow is represented in Figure 1a, and is
same order (e.g., ref 37,) or higher (e.g., ref 38). mathematically expressed as follows:
On the other hand, freshwater ecosystems (rivers, lakes
and most types of wetlands) and their biodiversity equally ETPNV - ETact
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If ETact < ETPNV: TWI ) (1)


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provide several ecosystem functions, including buffering ETPNV


against droughts and floods, biodegradation of organic waste,
and a steady supply of fisheries and of water itself (39-41).
If ETact g ETPNV: TWI ) 0 (2)
The global value of these ecosystem services supplied by
aquatic ecosystems is of the same order as those provided
by forest ecosystems (4.9 × 1012 vs 4.7 × 1012 $U.S. · year-1 Where TWI is the land use impact on the terrestrial (green)
(36)). Furthermore, the freshwater ecosystems are currently water flow (value between 0 for minimal and 1 for maximal
experiencing far greater declines in biodiversity than most impact), ETact and ETPNV the mean annual evapotranspiration
terrestrial ecosystems as a consequence of, among other (mm or l · m-2) of the actual land use system and of the
reasons, flow modification and water pollution (41). potential natural vegetation.
Therefore, applying a “green-and-blue water” approach, The impact on aquatic ecosystems of a land use system
in which the positive effects of green and blue water flows that evapotranspires the same amount of water as the PNV
are accounted for, is a prerequisite for sustainable land is minimal. If a land use provides more water, the impact
management (17, 29, 42). However, up to now, this approach remains minimal. If it consumes more water, the aquatic
is not or poorly incorporated in impact assessment methods, ecosystem functioning will become more disturbed, until a
such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (see Supporting Infor- critical level is reached, passed which the aquatic ecosystem
mation for a short review of existing methods for water becomes irreversibly damaged. This critical level is calculated
quantity impact assessment in LCA). in environmental flow assessments and is known as minimal
The aim of this paper is to propose a simple and flow or environmental water requirement (EWR), mostly
straightforward method to assess land use impact specifically expressed as a proportion of the natural river discharge
related to water quantity, based on the ecosystem services (denoted as xEWR, with xEWR < 1). Several strategies have been
green and blue water flows deliver. proposed for its calculation (46, 48).
This method is designed for incorporation in land use The corresponding threshold evapotranspiration level of
impact assessment of LCA. In a LCA-context, land use impact the terrestrial ecosystem (ETEWR; (mm)) is then given as
consists of two types of intervention, i.e., land use occupation
impact (the impact associated with the use of an area during ETEWR ) P - xEWR · (P - ETPNV) (3)
a certain time for a certain human-controlled purpose) and
land use transformation impact (the impact of a human- In eq 3, P represents the annual precipitation (mm). The
induced change in use of a land area, sometimes referred to impact of a land use on the aquatic (blue) water flow (AWI)
as land use change impact) (43, 44). Occupation impact is is represented in Figure 1.b, and can be expressed as
calculated as A*T *I, transformation impact as A*∆I, were A
denotes the area occupied, T the time of occupation, I the If ETact e ETPNV: AWI ) 0 (4)
environmental impact of the land, and ∆I the change in this
impact following transformation (43). In the proposed ETact - ETPNV
method, we estimate the water quantity-related impact (I) If ETPNV < ETact < ETEWR: AWI ) (5)
ETEWR - ETPNV
of a land use occupation and its change following land use
transformation (∆I).
If ETact g ETEWR: AWI ) 1 (6)
2. A New Impact Assessment Method
TWI and AWI can be combined to yield the integrated
The natural flow regime is the natural river discharge in a
terrestrial-aquatic water impact TAWI (Figure 1c). Combining
river basin that would have occurred in the absence of human
eqs 1-6 yields
impacts in a river basin (40, 45). Its central role in sustaining
biodiversity and ecosystem services is now widely recognized
ETPNV - ETact
(46), as it represents the discharge level aquatic ecosystems If ETact e ETPNV: TAWI ) (7)
are best adapted to and at which they have maximal resilience ETPNV

VOL. 43, NO. 19, 2009 / ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY 9 7325
ETact - ETPNV than the natural river discharge (45). However, very
If ETPNV < ETact < ETEWR: TAWI ) high fresh water flows could impact aquatic ecosystem
ETEWR - ETPNV
(8) functioning. It is implicitly assumed in this model that
this effect is negligible compared with the impact on
If ETact g ETEWR: TAWI ) 1 (9) terrestrial ecosystems when ETact < ETPNV.
• The EWR-concept was used to couple green water flow,
If ETact is lower than ETPNV, there is an environmental impact the basic indicator of our model, to blue water flow.
because not all terrestrial ecosystem services are fulfilled, xEWR is by origin an indicator at catchment or basin
and this impact increases with decreasing evapotranspira- scale (40). The model implicitly assumes that xEWR is
tion. If ETact is higher than ETPNV, there is also an impact the same for the entire catchment, or that the considered
because the aquatic terrestrial ecosystem functions are land use covers the entire catchment. Furthermore, the
hampered, and the impact increases further with increasing impact on aquatic flows is restricted to ETEWR as a single
water use, up to a threshold value. indicator. This is a considerable simplification of the
We aimed to keep the data requirements for the model reality, in which the flow of a river is comprised of five
as low as possible, allowing it to be incorporated in existing key components, i.e., variability, magnitude, frequency,
LCA methods or to be used on its own. Only two types of duration, timing, and rate of change (45). However,
green water flow (ETact and ETPNV) and annual rainfall have implying all these elements is impractical in a LCA-
to be measured or estimated. The fourth required variable, approach because of the large data input required (49).
xEWR, can be estimated from Smakhtin et al. (40). 3.2. Irrigated/Drained Cropland and Forest Plantations.
In case of land use transformation, transformation impact When assessing the land use impact of irrigated cropland,
∆TAWI can be estimated as TAWI2 - TAWI1, with TAWI2 and irrigated forest plantations or of ecosystems taking up
TAWI1 the impact of the new and of the previous land use, groundwater, the model does not need to be adapted. This
respectively. can be illustrated with a fictitious example. Suppose that
mean annual rainfall is 1000 mm, and that ETPNV and ETEWR
3. Discussion and Model Refinement are 600 and 800 mm. The impact will be minimal for an
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3.1. Underlying Assumptions of the Basic Model. The ecosystem evapotranspiring 600 mm, in which case 400 mm
proposed model requires a minimum of input data, which flows will flow to the aquatic ecosystem. If an additional 200
implies that several (implicit) assumptions were made: mm becomes available through irrigation or groundwater
• Linear relationships between the points with maximal recharge, this can be interpreted as a rentless loan of 200
and minimal impacts were assumed for the charac- mm taken up from the catchment. If the system would use
terization functions. However, natural processes are 600 mm, 600 mm would flow back to aquatic resources; 200
rarely linear. In section 3.3, we propose using threshold mm would payback the loan, and 400 mm would flow to the
values for the ETPNV to overcome this problem. aquatic ecosystem; hence, total impact would be minimal.
• By using green flow (evapotranspiration) as a predictor However, it is likely that the total evapotranspiration of an
of ecosystem services, it is implicitly assumed that irrigated land use will be higher than ETPNV, and that TAWI
transpiration and evaporation contribute equally to the will be higher than that of a nonirrigated land use. Although
ecosystem services. A correction for this will be dis- irrigation increases water availability, ETEWR still has to be
cussed in section 3.4. calculated from the rainfall of the rainfed natural system.
• It was assumed that evapotranspiration of a fully sealed For drained systems, a similar reasoning prevails. The
surface is 0, which is not correct. A way to account for model does not need to be adapted, and ETPNV and ETEWR
this is presented in section 3.5. have to be calculated from the mean annual rainfall. Suppose
• The impact on aquatic ecosystem services was assumed that in the above example 300 mm is drained from the system.
minimal when fresh water flow is equal to or higher The water available to the drained system will be only 700

FIGURE 1. Model of water quantity impact a. on terrestrial ecosystems (TWI), b. on aquatic ecosystems (AWI), and c. on both
aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (TAWI) as a function of evapotranspiration (ET) of the potential natural vegetation (PNV) and a
threshold ETEWR. Figure 1d demonstrates how linear functions starting from threshold values for ETPNV (ETPNV,min and ETPNV,max) can
describe more accurately the actual characterization function, represented by the dotted line.

7326 9 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY / VOL. 43, NO. 19, 2009
TABLE 1. Impact of Selected Forest Stands, Cropland and Grazing Land on Well-Drained Luvisols and Podzoluvisols and on Gleyic
Cambisols in Flanders, Belgium (Data after Refs 55, 56 for the Basic (TAWI) and More Advanced Models (TAWI1 and TAWI2, See
Text for Details). ETact and Tact Are Expressed As % of Annual Rainfall (P; (mm))
P ETact Tact TWI AWI TAWI TAWI1 TAWI2
(1) Ecosystems on Well-Drained Luvisols and Podzoluvisols
Milio-Fagetum (PNV) 837 59 43
Pedunculate oak 757 64 42 0 0.22 0.22 0.22 0.22
Perennial ryegrass 1120 33 23 0.45 0 0.45 0.45 0.58
maize 889 49 30 0.17 0 0.17 0.25 0.34
wheat 899 58 43 0.3 0 0.03 0.01 0.01
(2) Ecosystems on Gleyic Cambisols
Fago-Quercetum (PNV) 773 55 35
Pedunculate oak 972 49 35 0.13 0 0.13 0.05 0.07

mm. If the system uses 600 mm for green water flow, the on the terrestrial water flow, the basic model tends to
terrestrial ecosystem services are still maximally provided, overestimate the terrestrial ecosystem services. If ETact < ETPNV
and a total of 400 mm will flow to the aquatic ecosystem, and if data are available to estimate transpiration (T) and
hence the total impact is minimal; however, it is likely that evaporation (E) of the actual and the potential natural
the system would evapotranspire less, causing an impact on vegetation separately, it is preferable to use characterization
terrestrial ecosystem services. functions of the total green water flow (ETPNV,mod and ETact,mod):
3.3. Threshold Effect and the Potential Natural Vegeta-
tion PNV. Natural processes (50) and ecosystem services (51) ETPNV,mod ) aPNV · TPNV + bPNV · EPNV (14)
are rarely linear. Instead, slight deviations from a reference
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value may not cause a significant impact, while the envi- ETact,mod ) aact · Tact + bact · Eact (15)
ronmental impact may increase exponentially for larger
deviations. Such relationships can be relatively well described In this function, aPNV and aact are the weights of the
by a linear function using a threshold value (see Figure 1d) transpirative flow and are always maximal (aact ) aPNV ) 1).
(50). The weights to be assigned to bPNV and bact depend on the
Threshold values of ETPNV can be estimated by using the ecosystem and land use. A possible approach could be to
standard error of ETPNV-estimates to define a confidence base the weights on the ecosystem services as listed by
interval (ETPNV,min; ETPNV,max), or by estimating a minimal and Costanza et al. (36). For instance, for temperate forests and
maximal evapotranspiration based on the dynamic status of if the contribution of evaporation to ecosystem services is
the potential natural vegetation. As a consequence of the only considered to be climate regulation, bPNV can be
biomass dynamics of the landscape patches constituting the estimated as 86 × 302-1 or 0.28 (86 $U.S. · year-1 · ha-1 is the
PNV, its total biomass will fluctuate between a lower and an estimated contribution of climate regulation to the total
upper value (47). The evapotranspiration of the PNV will ecosystem services, estimated to be 302 $U.S. · year-1 · ha-1).
equally fluctuate within a range, with boundary levels For the aquatic ecosystems only the total amount of water
ETPNV,min and ETPNV,max. The impact of the potential natural flow matters, not the underlying terrestrial processes. Hence,
vegetation is always considered minimal, and it follows that eqs 8 and 9 or 12 and 13 do not change when transpiration
all ecosystems whose evapotranspiration lies between these and evaporation are regarded separately. In eqs 7, 10, and
boundary levels will have a minimal impact. 11, ETPNV and ETact can be substituted by ETPNV,mod and
A model refinement based on ETPNV,min and ETPNV,max is ETact,mod.
illustrated in Figure 1d and is given by 3.5. Evaporation of Sealed Surfaces. Evaporation of
sealed surfaces is not zero. Even for a hypothetic fully sealed
ETPNV,min - ETact surface with an infinitely small storage capacity S, there will
If ETact < ETPNV,min: TAWI )
ETPNV,min be a small amount of water evaporating during rainfall events.
(10) This amount can be estimated as (after Gash et al. (54), with
lim(Sf0)
If ETPNV,min < ETact < ETPNV,max:: TAWI ) 0 (11)
Ē · P
ETact - ETPNV,max ETmin ) (16)
Rj
If ETPNV,max < ETact < ETEWR: TAWI )
ETEWR - ETPNV,max
(12) with Rj the mean rainfall rate (mm · h-1) and Ej the mean rate
of evaporation from a saturated canopy (mm · h-1). Ej is a
If ETact g ETEWR: TAWI ) 1 (13) very conservative parameter, varying little with climate, and
can be estimated as 0.22 mm · h-1. If estimates of Rj are
3.4. Transpiration or Evapotranspiration? Green water available, eq 7 can be adapted to
flow is defined as the sum of transpiration and evaporation.
Evaporation is the sum of soil evaporation and interception ETPNV - ETact
evaporation (42, 52) and can make up a substantial part of If ETact < ETPNV: TAWI ) (17)
ETPNV - ETmin
the water budget (53). In the basic model, it was implicitly
assumed that the ecosystem services delivered by evaporative
and by transpirative water flow were the same. However, the
4. Examples of Impact Calculation
role of evaporative flow in providing ecosystem services is The model was first applied on a data set of a study in
limited to climate regulation, and possibly control over Flanders, Belgium, in which total rainfall, transpiration, and
nutrients and erosion, depending on the ecosystem, while evaporation were measured separately (Table 1; data from
the transpirative flow is an important driver of all ecosystem refs 55, 56 - only the results of the year 2000, when
services. Hence, when calculating the impact of a land use measurements of the entire year were available, were used).

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FIGURE 2. Prolonged effect of clearfelling, burning and reseeding of a native mountain ash forest in Victoria, Australia (black
rectangles, data from ref 60) and of clearfelling of a dry, sclerophyllous Eucalypt forest and replanting with Pinus radiata (white
diamonds, data from ref 59) on a. the ETact (relative to the ETPNV, 100 · (ETact - ETPNV)/ETPNV) and b. on TAWI.

TAWI was calculated for the basic model (ETact as input), for The above examples illustrate the user friendliness and
the advanced model with Eact and Tact used separately (TAWI1, limited data requirements of the models and furthermore
a value of 0.28 for bact and bPNV was used, see section 3.4) and demonstrate that the model is not limited to LCA, but can
for the further advanced model in which also the evaporation be useful in environmental impact assessment or any other
of sealed surfaces is accounted for (TAWI2, rain was con- type of land use impact study.
sidered to occur in 6% of the total hours, after ref 57). xEWR
was 0.44 (40). Acknowledgments
Measurements from two sites were used. The sites on W.H.M. was funded by a K. U. Leuven Ph.D. grant. We would
well-drained luvisols and podzoluvisols had a Milio-Fagetum like to acknowledge the Forecoman team for the inspiration
as PNV (a mesotrophic beech forest (58)), while actual land when building the model, particularly Bert Reubens and
use consisted of oak forest, cropland (maize and wheat) and Wouter Achten. We are grateful to three anonymous reviewers
grazing land. The oak forest consumed more water than the for their valuable comments.
PNV, resulting in a positive AWI (Table 1). The grazing land
and the maize field, whose ETact were lower than ETPNV, had Supporting Information Available
a positive TWI. Due to the higher E-fraction of these land A short review of existing methods for impact assessment of
uses, TWI further increased in the more advanced model water quantity, with a focus on methods in the life cycle
(see Table 1a). assessment (LCA) framework. This material is available free
The second site on Gleyic cambisols had a Fago-Quer- of charge via the Internet at http://pubs.acs.org.
cetum as PNV (an oligotrophic oak-beech forest), while ac-
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