Wetland Marsh Feature

Forests & Faucets, Wetlands & Waterworks

Earth Day and U.S. Water Prize celebrations remind me that some of the most important things we can do for water are above the intake and beyond the outfall–sometimes many miles above and beyond the man-made infrastructure systems.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes this and its “Forests to Faucets” project, is doing something about it. They’re using GIS to model and map land areas most important to surface drinking water and exploring the role forests play in protecting these areas and the extent of threat from development, insects, disease, and fire. The data can help shape state forest conservation plans, identify areas where a “payment for watershed services” project may be an option for financing conservation work, and show the link between forests and the provision of surface drinking water.

It’s all important, urgent work:  USDA notes about 53% of the nation’s water supply originates on forest land and that within the next 25 years 44.2 million acres of private forests in the U.S. will be at risk of conversion to developed uses.

One of the best known examples of the tree-to-tap connection is in the New York City (NYC) watershed. NYC has protected more than 35% of the watershed. Just ask Carter Strickland, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, whether it’s been worthwhile. He’ll tell you NYC not only protects important areas upstream but avoids the need for building multi-billion dollar water filtration plants downstream.  It’s all made possible because of the high quality habitat conservation and pollution prevention projects upstream, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to review and approve under its Safe Drinking Water Act filtration avoidance regulations.

A great example of interstate collaboration for source water protection has emerged in the Salmon Falls River Watershed of Maine and New Hampshire. In 2010, a Salmon Falls Watershed Collaborative was launched to protect water quality from development-related threats.  Federal and state agencies and individuals are now joining forces upstream to prevent polluted runoff, conserve forests, and reduce downstream drinking water treatment costs. As EPA and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) would tell you, connecting the dots between forests and faucets and between private lands and public benefits protects source waters and promotes smart growth beyond the borders of political subdivisions and bureaucratic boundaries. Persistence and sweat equity pay off. On April 23, Andy Tolman from the Maine drinking water program and Paul Suska from the New Hampshire drinking water program accepted the 2012 U.S. Water Prize on behalf of the Collaborative and its members who range from the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership to local and state organizations.

The Salmon Falls project is just one of the efforts supported by the Source Water Collaborative, a national partnership established in 2006. 23 partners, from EPA to state agencies and local planning organizations and NGOs, work together and share strategies for protecting the areas “where safe water begins”.

Wetlands, like forests, can perform an amazing array of services for ecosystems and economies. Filtering future drinking water is just one of them. Keep that in mind as you celebrate “American Wetlands Month” in May. EPA and governmental and nongovernmental partners first designated the month in 1991 to celebrate the vital importance of wetlands to the nation’s ecological, economic, and social health. I’m betting more people know February is American Heart Month and April is National Poetry Month but the wetlands education cause is just as important to our health and well-being.

Tapping into the land and water nexus can mean several things on the national policy level, from funding the Farm Bill’s conservation programs that benefit forests, to supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, including the proposed use of competitive grants to spur innovation and public private partnerships, to implementing EPA’s Green Infrastructure Strategy, which includes cross-cutting research to Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act program activities. It should also include a national commitment to the science, policy, and art of understanding ecosystem services. Agencies, universities, NGOs, and private sector experts are pouring millions of hours and dollars into the worthwhile effort.

Aldo Leopold’s 1949 environmental classic, Sand County Almanac, described the need for a “land ethic”–to conserve and protect the land rather than simply view it as a means to get rich. A “wet land ethic” is needed, as well, to connect tree tops and water drops, wetlands and water plants. How we manage the land matters for water.

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