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West Virginia

Forests: Nature's Water Purifier

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Explore the connection between healthy forests and our drinking water.


By Randy Edwards

Next time you walk through a forest, imagine that the trees are affixed to the end of your kitchen faucet like a large green purifier, cleaning the water before it splashes, crystal-clear and cool, into your drinking glass.

It’s hard to think of it that way; a natural forest is a messy thing, a chaotic jumble of plants and animals blanketed by leaf litter or pine needles. But the civil engineers who are responsible for safe drinking water have known for years that source water flowing from forested watersheds is easier and cheaper to treat than the water that runs off city streets or agricultural fields.

That’s because forest root systems absorb nutrients that can spoil water quality, and bind soil together to prevent erosion from polluting streams. Mature trees along a river provide shade to moderate water temperature. Protecting forested floodplains reduces flooding, which in turn decreases sediment and polluted runoff.

So, if you want a drink of clear, cool water, look downstream from a healthy forest. 

West Virginia Forests

But those healthy forests are threatened throughout West Virginia when poor agriculture and forestry practices are followed and by urban development. And as forests are destroyed, water quality suffers. That’s one important reason why The Nature Conservancy is protecting forests along source water streams throughout West Virginia, including the tributaries of the Potomac River in the Eastern Panhandle.

Water treatment experts know the connection between the forests we preserve and the water we drink. In fact, they’ve understood for years that raw water from forested watersheds is easier to treat. In recent years, however, regulators have urged municipalities to pay as much attention to the water coming into their treatment plants as they do to the water leaving the plant for distribution.

For example, about 5 million people in the region surrounding Washington, D.C., rely on the Potomac River for their drinking water. This drinking water source originates in the high elevations of West Virginia’s Central Appalachian Mountains. At places like North Fork Mountain and Mount Porte Crayon, the Conservancy is protecting and restoring those high elevation forests, which will help the mountain streams run clear and cold all the way to the Potomac.

A Conservation Twofer

We didn’t begin our work in West Virginia’s mountains to protect drinking water, but because we recognized, decades ago, the extraordinary biological diversity of these watersheds. The North Fork Mountain region supports one of the largest concentrations of rare species in the Central Appalachians, including the Virginia big-eared bat and the pink-edged sulfer butterfly, and globally rare wildflowers. Woven throughout this region is a rich tapestry of plants and animals, including the timber rattlesnake, Applachian cottontail and paper birch. The South Branch of the Potomac is one of the state’s premier trout fishing streams, and its headwaters on the mountain are among West Virginia’s most popular recreation areas.

But that’s the beauty of protecting forested watersheds. Conserve a floodplain forest and you’ve not only protected drinking water for communities downstream, but you’ve also preserved habitat for birds, fish, and other animals that rely on clean streams and healthy forests. 

So next time you turn on your tap, picture a stream passing through a deep, cool forest – nature’s water purifier.

Randy Edwards is a senior media relations manager for The Nature Conservancy

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