The Nature Conservancy works on protecting water supplies beyond Washington, DC and has been doing so for more than 60 years. The best way to ensure clean drinking water downstream is to protect the land and waterways of tributaries upstream. In many cases, preserving intact forests and marshes, which help filter the impurities from water, is one way to ensure lower water treatment costs.
Protecting forests also ensures a steady quantity of water. When it falls on impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and buildings, rain rushes into waterways in a large, short burst. When it falls on natural surfaces such as soil, plants, and plant litter, it trickles through at a steadier pace, which keeps a water supply more consistent.
The Nature Conservancy is working to preserve the quality, and quantity, of drinking water in Virginia:
- Warm Springs Mountain near Hot Springs, VA is an important source of water. It supplies a portion of the drinking water to the town of Hot Springs, but is also the source for some of the thermal springs in the area, including those at the Homestead Resort. The Nature Conservancy owns and protects 9,200 acres on Warm Springs Mountain itself. Nature Conservancy scientists are working to understand how the water from the mountain feeds the hot springs.
- Charlottesville, VA and Albemarle County is a rapidly growing area that gets its water from three reservoirs in the Rivanna River watershed. During a drought in 2002, the area didn’t have enough water and had to impose stringent water rationing. The Nature Conservancy worked with community partners to develop a plan to increase the water supply. As a result, the community approved a plan that meets the needs of people while providing extraordinary benefits for the wildlife that depend on the Rivanna and Moormans rivers by restoring these rivers’ life sustaining flows. In addition, The Nature Conservancy owns land and has conservation easements around the reservoir to protect the ecosystem and enhance water quality. Healthy river ecosystems are important because aquatic invertebrates, like mussels, help filter impurities from the water, improving the quality of drinking water downstream.
- The Norfolk metropolitan region relies on the Nottoway River, one of TNC’s priority watersheds in southeastern Virginia, for a portion of its water supply. The Conservancy is helping to safeguard this supply through forest protection upstream of the Norfolk’s Nottoway River water intake. The Conservancy and other partners have conserved 7,600 acres to date and are working on additional acquisitions. Currently, the Norfolk metro region only draws about 3 to 4 percent of its water from its Nottway river intake, but that number may increase as groundwater resources become scarce due to unsustainable withdrawals. The Conservancy is working to increase the protection on land around the Nottoway River.
- The Clinch River is the headwaters for the Tennessee River. It also provides drinking water for more than 100,000 people who live in several small cities in southwestern Virginia, including Richlands and Tazewell. In addition to protecting land along the Clinch River, The Nature Conservancy is working to preserve aquatic species there, which helps improve water quality. We’re partnering with mining companies and local governments to help fund water protection projects.
- The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve is an enormous stretch of land including 14 undeveloped barrier islands that protect the coast from battering storms. Here, Nature Conservancy scientists are working to restore lost seagrass habitat, which plays an important role in capturing nutrients and sediments. It also helps slow erosion, increasing water quality. The Conservancy is also working with NOAA to restore oyster reefs in the area, which play an important role in cleaning sea water.
- In the mid-1990s, The Nature Conservancy helped create the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge, which protects land along the main branch of the Rappahannock. We also helped establish conservation easements along the river, and have two preserves there - Voorhees and the Alexander Berger Memorial Sanctuary. These protected forests and wetlands act as natural filters for water.
- 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 adult 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 Conservancy in Virginia has worked on a number of restoration projects in the Piankatank River and is now raising funds to do one of the largest-scale oyster restoration projects in Virginia.
The Nature Conservancy is also working to protect water at a much larger scale - the ocean. A tumble in the surf will tell you the water isn't drinkable, but it is a highly productive and diverse marine system that supports a variety of commercial and recreational activities. We're working to transform ocean management to preserve the Mid-Atlantic Seascape for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come.
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.