Water, Water Everywhere… Land&People

The near-record snows that blanketed the eastern United States this past winter left regional reservoirs brimming and water supply managers smiling. For the first time in years, stressed water systems were at full capacity, and for most, the drought emergencies that had become annual events in recent years are fast becoming bad memories.

Ironically, for drinking-water-supply people, that's the downside. There is, after all, nothing like a drought to make people appreciate water. "We have what we call the 'hydro-illogical cycle,'" quips hydrologist Paul K. Barten. "It goes from drought to concern to rainfall to apathy." Barten, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, is working with the Trust for Public Land on a two-year project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to demonstrate the effectiveness of using land conservation and forest management to protect drinking water sources.

All Open Space Is Not Equal

"Last year's drought raised a lot of people's awareness of our reservoir system," says Don Outen, natural resource manager with the Baltimore, Maryland County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, which manages water supplies for the city and surrounding county. "It gave us validation that protecting source waters is important."

Protecting source water means protecting the watersheds from which drinking waters flow. Baltimore County was visionary about land protection. In the mid-1970s, 60 percent of the county's land was down-zoned–meaning that fewer housing units could be built on it–and today 85 percent of the people live on just one-third of the county's land area. Recognizing the link between water quality and land conservation, the county has protected some 33,000 acres of open space in reservoir watersheds. Even so, development pressures are mounting. Don Outen's job is to prioritize land for protection.

"Is all forest cover equal?" he ponders. "That's the key question." The positive relationship between forest cover and water quality is well established, but the question is key because there is more forest at risk than there is funding to protect it. "How much forest cover do you need in a watershed?" Outen asks. "It's all intuitive right now."

Intuitive watershed protection, it turns out, has been getting it wrong. For decades supply managers have been protecting the forest at the reservoir shoreline and along the banks of main feeder streams, while ignoring the upland forest that covers tiny headwater streams. That thinking, Outen says, needs to be flipped. "The best forest," he says, "is a large forest with minimal human disturbance, located on headwater stream systems."

Headwater streams, the first small rivulets that gather in swales or flow out of marshland, account for 50 percent of the total stream-miles in a watershed. This means that by the time they converge to become babbling brooks, these smallest streams already carry the pesticides, fertilizer, septage, and other runoff from 50 percent or more of a reservoir's watershed.

Armed with this knowledge, TPL moved quickly when rumblings of development threatened the largest privately held tract of forestland in the Gunpowder Falls watershed. The woods, encompassing nearly 300 acres and stitched with small streams, were home to three youth camps run by local service organizations, which had been serving urban and suburban youth since the 1930s. But skyrocketing land values at a time when the camps faced increasing costs and dwindling resources put the forest and the drinking water it protected at risk.

Working with the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, a Baltimore County conservation organization, TPL negotiated conservation easements that protect the forest in perpetuity. At the same time, they give the camps an endowment that not only covers operating costs but also provides scholarships for disadvantaged youth. Private foundations supplemented state and county conservation funding for the easements.

The Reservoirs You Cannot See

While dried-out reservoirs are a stark reminder of the need to protect surface water supplies, the more important, long-term supply concerns may be out of sight, beneath the ground.

Groundwater is the technical term for water beneath the surface of the earth. It is nature's storage tank, feeding the springs that bubble forth from hillsides to replenish surface water supplies. When groundwater levels fall, streams dry up. Deeper in the earth, groundwater may pool in layered aquifers that can underlie vast portions of the United States. Groundwater provides more than 40 percent of the nation's drinking water, and groundwater recharge is critical to that supply.

People studying water supply have discovered that greater demand–more people who need water–is just part of the linkage between development and groundwater supply. "Development," says TPL's Caryn Ernst, "prevents groundwater recharge." Indeed, one of the reasons the reservoirs filled so quickly this spring is that so much land is covered by hard surfaces–roofs and driveways, streets and parking lots–that divert rainfall into streams and storm-water systems and prevent it from soaking into the ground. Rain that does not soak in to recharge the groundwater flows quickly to the sea and is lost.

As manager of the Source Water Stewardship Project for the Trust for Public Land, Ernst helped select the four watersheds being studied by Paul Barten. "The Metedeconk River," she says, "was an obvious candidate."

Located in Ocean County on New Jersey's pine- forest coastal plain, the Metedeconk River watershed is small, covering just 70 square miles, but beset by problems such as residential and road development, lack of forest management, and nonpoint source pollution–all problems typical of drinking-water-supply watersheds.

"The drought last year put huge stress on the Metedeconk system," says Leigh Rae, director of TPL's New Jersey Field Office. "There was not only less water to drink, there was less water to dilute the pollutants running off the land." Those trying to address the Metedeconk's problems ran up against a common roadblock–lots of official players, with one hand often not aware of what the other is doing.

"A lot of municipalities and counties have developed open space plans," Rae says, "but they are not integrated." On the Metedeconk, for instance, Ocean County and Jackson and Brick townships all wrote independent development plans, despite the fact they share the same river and the same underlying groundwater. "Encouraging a regional perspective," Rae concludes, "could be our most important achievement."

It cannot come soon enough. With critical properties at risk, TPL is already forging cross-township partnerships. Working with Jackson and Freehold townships, Ocean County, and the state, TPL negotiated two deals covering numerous individual properties totaling more than 1,700 acres. The aggregate land, at the headwaters of the Metedeconk, protects the drinking-water supply of three downstream municipalities. This acreage is being added to the adjoining Turkey Swamp Wildlife Management Area, nearly doubling its size.

Because of last summer's drought and the problems it underscored, New Jersey moved to designate the Metedeconk a Category One watershed, providing more protection from development and giving it preference for open space funding. "TPL's study will provide better information about what land needs to be protected," Rae says. "And it will give us better tools for presenting our case to potential funders."

Holding Ground in Connecticut

Ironically, while water systems in most states are trying to purchase additional watershed land, some utilities in Connecticut are selling theirs off. The situation is complicated; the sell-off is in part an unintended consequence of federal regulations requiring that reservoir drinking water be filtered. Filtration costs money; one way to raise that money is to sell off land, and Connecticut's privately held water companies had no shortage of "excess" property to market.

Water company land holdings are classified based on proximity to and potential impact on public drinking-water supplies. Land located distant from active drinking-water supplies can be sold with few restrictions. The key word here is "active." Many companies, rather than invest in upgrading marginal reservoirs, have chosen to abandon them. Once they are out of active service, the surrounding land can be sold. In its 1997 study, An Ounce of Prevention, the Trust for Public Land Connecticut Field Office reported that some 21,000 acres of water-company-owned lands–an area nearly as large as the entire Connecticut State Parks system–was liable to be sold for development.

"The drought raised a critical question," says TPL Project Manager Elisabeth Moore. "What if we need these reservoirs in the future? We need to think about future drinking-water supply." While the drought's impact has made people more concerned about surface water supplies, Moore says that the real issue in Connecticut, as in New Jersey, is the water beneath the ground. "Those excess properties may very well be the recharge zones for aquifers." Aquifers cut across topographical lines and can underlie more than one watershed. "There is very little mapping of aquifers," Moore cautions, "and a watershed doesn't necessarily capture an aquifer."

There's more: TPL's study found that even Connecticut's largest water companies own, on average, only 25 percent of their active watersheds, with smaller companies owning far less. Although protecting open space around active water supplies is key to protecting the quality of their water, the companies are making no effort to expand their holdings of primary watershed.

The TPL report, and the media coverage it triggered, brought a pledge from Connecticut Governor John Rowland to spend $166 million over five years to protect watersheds and open space. Continued efforts by TPL led to passage of an act providing tax credits to companies selling land for conservation. Since 1997, TPL's Connecticut Watershed Initiative has protected nearly 2,000 acres buffering active and potential sources of drinking water in communities spanning the state, and in 2001 the state announced plans to protect more than 15,000 acres of water-company-owned land in a single acquisition.

Connecticut is not alone in finding that large tracts of open space, long thought to be safe from development, are suddenly at risk. North Carolina's Gaston, Lincoln, and Mecklenberg counties, which encompass the Charlotte-Gastonia metropolitan area, are home to Mountain Island Lake, created in 1924 by a Duke Power Company hydroelectric project. While the lake was created to generate electric power, it also became a natural source for the region's drinking water. More than half a million people today drink Mountain Island Lake water–water so pure that since moving its drinking-water intake from South Fork River to the lake, the city of Gastonia has been saving $200,000 a year in water treatment costs.

Watershed protection efforts began in the 1970s, and today most of the lake's eastern side is protected by the Mecklenberg County Park and Recreation Department. But until recently much of the open space on the western shore was still owned by Duke Power. Lands that were no longer needed for power generation were transferred to the company's real estate development arm, Crescent Resources.

With both open space and the quality of their drinking water at risk, conservation groups, including the Trust for Public Land, created the Mountain Island Lake Initiative, dedicated to preventing development along 80 miles of lakeshore and some 250 miles of tributary streams. With an initial $6.15 million grant from North Carolina's Clean Water Management Trust Fund, TPL worked with Gaston and Lincoln counties and a consortium of municipal governments to purchase 1,231 acres along six miles of the lake's western shore from Crescent Resources.

That was in 1998. Since then, parcel purchases and conservation easements have nearly met the initiative's goal of protecting 80 percent of the lakeshore. "But we also need to protect the tributaries," says Bill Holman, executive director of the Trust Fund. "And with smaller tracts and more owners, that's going to be difficult."

Gaining Understanding, Setting Priorities

Difficult, but not impossible. "There is overwhelming public support for protecting watershed lands," says TPL's Caryn Ernst. "We find that support in all our public polling, and we have seen it in ballot issues all across the country." And setting priorities is becoming easier as new understanding–about forest cover and the value of headwater streams–is coupled with powerful mapping tools that, says Paul Barten at the University of Massachusetts, "can finally let us identify the most important sites to protect."

With development inexorably pushing into farmland and forest, setting priorities is a constant issue for water supply managers. Spring runoff may have filled the reservoirs, but summer already looms. "And we know," Barten says, "that the next drought is somewhere just down the road."

New Jersey resident Richard Stapleton writes frequently on environmental and conservation issues and is currently editing an encyclopedia of pollution for Macmillan Reference.