Ensuring clean drinking water means protecting the land and water around us. The Nature Conservancy has been doing just that for more than 60 years.
It also means keeping a close eye on what goes into wild waterways before that water even gets close to a pipe. Reducing and monitoring agricultural runoff is one of the best ways to keep water quality high - whether for DC drinking water, drinking water for other cities, or to keep pollution levels low in general.
The Chesapeake Bay and the rivers and streams that flow to it is the biggest waterway system in the region. Protecting the tributaries to the Bay helps to restore the health of the Bay and to ensure safe drinking water. This includes protecting the land, watching the water for runoff, and coming up with innovative solution to thorny conservation problems. The Nature Conservancy is working on all these fronts to protect water quality in Maryland.
- Maintaining healthy forests, which naturally filter out sediment and nutrients, is one of the most effective ways to keep water quality high throughout the region. The Nature Conservancy protects land from the headwaters in West Virginia, to the south branch of the Potomac, to Sideling Hill Creek, and in the Allegany Forest.
- Nature Conservancy scientists and conservationists are deciphering the best places to plant trees in Allegany County in western Maryland. Not all forested areas are equal when it comes to filtering water: some areas are better than others. Scientists are studying the way water flows across the land to find areas where trees will maximize pollution reduction.
- Agricultural runoff is a concern when it comes to water quality - both because of chemicals and nutrients added to the land, and because of how agriculture can disturb natural habitats. The Nature Conservancy is working with farmers to find ways to preserve conservation benefits while not hurting farmers’ bottom line.
- Scientists are studying the way water flows over farmland. The goal is to help farmers build effective forest buffers, help maintain flood plains, and restore wetlands wherever possible.
- The Nature Conservancy is working with Delmarva Poultry and others to switch the bedding in poultry houses to switchgrass. Switchgrass is a mature grass that doesn’t require fertilizers, is perennial, and stores nutrients in roots that can grow to be four feet deep. Establishing a local source of switchgrass would be good for farmers and for the environment.
- The Nature Conservancy has programs working with farmers to encourage and reward them for restoring wetlands.
- We’re seeking innovative financial methods to deal with stormwater in Washington, DC and other Chesapeake Bay cities. Older water systems like DC’s have a combined sewage overflow problem. Usually combined sewer systems transport all of their wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a water body. But in times when there is too much rain, stormwater and sewage combine and flow right into the river, untreated. One way we can prevent these waters from combining is making sure that stormwater is absorbed into the ground, rather than running off into the sewer. Doing so requires converting concrete surfaces to grass and other absorbent surfaces. So we’re looking for creative ways to work with both the government and private entities to convert paved areas to absorbent areas in a way that is cost-effective.
- Although oyster reefs don’t filter the water we drink, they protect the land from storms and filter our water in a way that can reduce the amount of pollution in it. (An oyster can filter almost 50 gallons of water a day when filtering for food). But they’re also among the most endangered reefs on the planet. The Nature Conservancy is helping work toward restoring oyster reefs in 20 Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2025, starting with Harris Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At 370 acres, it’s the largest oyster restoration project on the Eastern Shore—larger than the National Mall. We put baby oysters (spat) into oyster shells to return to an artificial reef.
Join the conversation on Twitter: #DCH2O.
September 10, 2013
About the Author
Brittany Steff is a freelance science writer, editor, and founder of Species Richness Media. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, two dogs, and lots of books. She is a contributor to Nature.org.