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USDA, Coca-Cola team up to repair watersheds in California and other states

By Lars Thorvaldsen
McClatchy Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON The Department of Agriculture and the Coca-Cola Co. said Friday they will collaborate to restore damaged watersheds on national lands, including one in California.

The deal will provide funding to both ongoing and new projects. By 2014, the project aims to return more than 250,000 gallons of water to the national forest system, which provides drinking water for more than 60 million Americans.

“For us water is the most important component in every product we make,” said Bruce Karas, a Coca-Cola official who oversees the company’s environmental and sustainability programs. “We want to help make sure that there is healthy water for everyone. . . . In any business you have to look at environmental impact in terms of the products you deliver.”

Since last year, Coca-Cola has worked with the U.S Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore natural resources and watersheds, many of which have been damaged by wildfire.

In California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, for example, the watershed that supplies drinking water to parts of the San Francisco Bay Area has been repaired by returning water through a meadow.

Under the just-announced projects, a watershed in Angeles National Forest in California and a Lake Michigan watershed will be repaired. Streams and wetlands near Chicago and in New Mexico are also included in the project.

There are several ways to repair watersheds, depending on what has caused the damage. The work includes removing invasive species, rehabilitation of burned lands and building bridges to make the watersheds more available for water. In general, what makes forests healthier will also help repair the watersheds.

The projects announced Friday will cost more than $1 million. Coke will contribute $626,000, with the rest coming from the National Forest Foundation and the Forest Service.

“By working together, we can better protect our nation’s watersheds and further enhance restoration efforts, even during challenging budget times,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department oversees the Forest Service.

The agreement between the Forest Service and Coca-Cola will continue through 2018.

One of the major factors that can cause damage to watersheds is wildfires, and California has been hit hard by them in the last year.

“One thing we see a lot is erosion and sedimentation following severe wildfire,” said Wes Swaffar, a program manager at the National Forest Foundation. “Once those burned watersheds receive rain or snow, we see a lot of erosion and sedimentation that impairs watershed health downstream.”

He said it is difficult to tell if the problem is increasing.

“The scope of this problem is national,” he said. “However, we’re working hard to restore national forest watersheds, and with the help of our partners, like Coca-Cola, we’re making progress.”

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