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Forests: Nature's Water Purifier

Drinking Water

Watch a video and 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.

Connecticut Forests

But those healthy forests are threatened throughout Connecticut by unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices 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, including those that feed into the Saugatuck River. 

Water treatment experts in Fairfield County know the connection between the forests we preserve and the water we drink. About 300,000 people rely on drinking water supplied by the Saugatuck River, and water treatment experts at Aquarion Water Company say they’ve always known that raw water from forested watersheds is easier to treat. In recent years, 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.

The Saugatuck River’s three main tributaries, the Aspetuck, Little and West Branch of the Saugatuck, combine with smaller streams to form a rich network of 242 miles of waterways that flow into the Saugatuck River and finally into Long Island Sound. As one of the healthiest river systems in Southwest Connecticut, the Saugatuck River Watershed provides a source of abundant, relatively clean water – largely because it is heavily forested. The Conservancy, in a partnership with Aquarion Water Company and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, is working to keep it that way.

A Conservation Twofer

We’ve recognized, for many years, the extraordinary biological diversity of this watershed. Flowing through nearly 60,000 acres in southwestern Connecticut, the river is home to native brook trout, a species in decline throughout New England, as well as eels and other fish that migrate between the Saugatuck and the Long Island Sound. 

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.

The Saugatuck River Watershed is just one of numerous places throughout the country where we’re protecting upland forests, supporting improved forestry practices and contributing new knowledge to our understanding of how forests protect freshwater. Throughout the East, The Nature Conservancy is hard at work, conserving and restoring the forests that buffer drinking water supplies for cities and small communities. From New Hampshire to Long Island Sound, the Conservancy is protecting upland forests along major tributaries of the Connecticut River. In Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, Conservancy forest-protection projects help filter the tributaries of the Potomac. And in New York, the Conservancy’s efforts in the Catskill Mountains help protect the principal drinking water source for New York City.

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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