The health of the Chesapeake Bay and healthy drinking water are as connected as the creeks, streams and rivers that flow through our 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed.
What’s good for clean water in our local waterways is good for the Bay — and for our public water supply.
Increasingly, environmental conservation groups, like the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, are looking for opportunities to develop partnerships with public water suppliers as an effective way to help restore clean water for drinking, fishing and swimming throughout the watershed.
This is a bit of a shift. In the past, we worked on the swimmable, fishable parts of the Clean Water Act but left the drinkable part to a different set of professionals.
As an example of that shift, the Alliance, the Octoraro Watershed Association, Chester Water Authority and other organizations in south-central Pennsylvania are seeking funds for projects that would both lower sediment and nutrient pollution to the Bay and lower nitrate concentrations in the Octoraro Reservoir, a drinking water source for 250,000 customers. Specifically, the partnership is looking for funding for a project that strategically focuses on agricultural best management practices on farms within a critical source-water protection area of the Octoraro watershed.
The OWA has been conducting one-on-one outreach to the Plain Sect community that manages 70 percent of the agricultural land in the Octoraro watershed. The organization has worked with Amish liaisons to visit more than 600 farms since 2001, which has resulted in many conservation practices being installed. Most recently, the association has been successful in writing 100 new conservation plans for Amish farms in the Critical Source Water Protection Area.
Partnerships like this seem to be on the rise in part because of efforts of the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Both agencies have instituted programs to foster source-water collaboratives.
There are 2,100 public water suppliers in Pennsylvania. Many of them are small, rural and operating on minuscule budgets. When these suppliers learn from and work with experienced environmental organizations, it can help both groups achieve mutual goals.
According to Andrew Gavin, deputy director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, activity in this arena has become more apparent in the last five years. The SRBC, well-known in the Bay region for regulating water withdrawals in the basin, assists with developing and implementing source-water protection plans for public water supplies.
“Water suppliers directly benefit from what Bay conservationists are doing,” Gavin said, “although drinking water hasn’t always been part of the conversation. That’s the main reason we formed the Lower Susquehanna Source Water Protection Partnership.” The partnership first convened in 2012 and is led by the commission, the EPA, the DEP, the Pennsylvania Rural Water Association, and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
Gavin pointed out that many of the communities regulated for stormwater in the Lower Susquehanna region are in Critical Source Water Protection Areas. He said that the tasks associated with developing source-water protection plans and stormwater management plans are comparable.
Julie Kollar, Director of the Water Resources Education Network, remembered hearing a presenter at a conference lamenting the lack of attention environmental organizations paid to drinking water. That was about 10 years ago. WREN, a nonpartisan project of the League of Women Voters, provides support to local community partnerships with funding from the DEP to raise awareness about protecting public drinking water sources, and to prevent nonpoint source pollution.
“What about the humans?” Kollar recalled a commentator saying. “As conservation-minded organizations, we care about the bugs and the fish and the Bay. But when it comes to drinking water, we didn’t make the connection. That’s where some environmental professionals were a fish out of water.”
And public water suppliers often didn’t think about upstream from their intake pipes either, she said. Kollar has since noticed an uptick in source-water collaboratives like the Lower Susquehanna group organized by SRBC and the Eastern Lancaster County Source Water Protection Collaborative, also formed in 2012.
Kollar said she knows of at least 10 ongoing collaborations that have formed in Pennsylvania.
“It’s getting better, because it makes sense,” Kollar said. “We can harness the power of the ecosystem as a passive water treatment plant as the first line of defense to remove pollutants before water enters the treatment plant.”
We all benefit when we use our expertise to form partnerships to provide clean water for people, fish, wildlife habitat and industry.
For this reason, the Alliance is focused on building relationships to simultaneously protect source water and the Bay. Together, we will get the job done better and faster than we can alone.
The Alliance’s mission is to lead, inspire and support local action to restore and protect the lands, rivers and streams of the Chesapeake Bay watershed to ensure the health of the Bay and clean water.