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.
But those healthy forests are threatened throughout Ohio 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 all throughout Ohio. By conserving forested floodplains at places like Morgan Swamp, which protects one of the cleanest tributaries of Lake Erie, along with numerous tributaries of the Ohio River, the Conservancy is helping to protect drinking water sources for millions of Ohioans.
Water treatment experts know the connection between the forests we preserve and the water we drink. Water treatment experts 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.
In Cincinnati, for example, more than 80 percent of its water supply comes from the Ohio River. Because the quality of that water is affected by flow from tributary streams from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, The Nature Conservancy is helping to protect forested waterways in places like Little Beaver Creek the Muskingum River and Scioto Brush Creek.
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We didn’t begin working in these areas to protect drinking water but because we recognized, decades ago, the extraordinary biological diversity of places like Scioto Brush Creek. But that’s the beauty of protecting forested watersheds. Conserve floodplain forest and you’re not only protecting 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