April 2010 Issue
Good Natured: Making Room for Nature in Our Busy Lives
From a Reliable Source: Trees Keep Your Water Cleaner
Spring is here! It is the season of flowers, nesting birds, warmer days and — yes — prom. No, this column is not about hormones. Instead, I want you to try to recall your high school days, and think about your science textbook.
In it, there was probably a diagram of the water cycle. Do you remember it? Some squiggles of rain falling on a green hillside with one or two trees to represent a forest. Downhill, an arrow pointed to wavy blues lines that were meant to be a stream.
Now for most of us, a natural forest is a messy thing, a chaotic jumble of plants and animals blanketed by moldy leaf litter or sticky pine needles. Yet the civil engineers responsible for safe drinking water obviously studied their textbooks well. They have known for years that water flowing from forested watersheds is easier and cheaper to treat than the water that runs off city streets or even farm fields because it is much cleaner.
That’s because forests (and their root systems):
• absorb fertilizers and other pollutants that run off farms and back yards;
• bind soil together to prevent erosion;
• provide shade to moderate water temperature; and
• slow runoff and reduce flooding.
So, if you want a drink of clear, cool water, look downstream from a healthy forest.
Considering the Source
These days, municipalities are paying as much attention to the water coming into their treatment plants as they are the water leaving the plant for distribution. For example, the drinking water in my central Ohio home comes from the City of Columbus treatment system. The city serves up clean drinking water to 1.1 million customers in central Ohio, and about 85 percent of that water comes from two major watersheds: Big Walnut Creek and the Scioto River.
From a recent conversation with Lorraine Winters, Water Protection Coordinator for the Watershed Management team at the Columbus Department of Public Utilities, I learned that the city began thinking seriously about source water 20 years ago. When they started to see worrisome levels of nutrients and pesticides, they knew it would be better to invest in protection at the source, rather than relying solely on expensive chemical treatment at the water plant.
In their education and outreach efforts, the city focuses on upstream farms and homeowners who live immediately adjacent to the waterways and reservoirs. They work with local soil and water conservation offices, the agricultural industry and state agencies to help farmers reduce the amount of nutrients and pesticides coming from farm fields. They cooperate with conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, to protect and restore floodplain wetlands and streamside forests. Through its Land Stewardship Program, the city encourages homeowners to maintain natural buffers on the city-owned land between their back yards and the reservoirs.
“Within our watersheds, we’ve seen an increase in the use of greenways and filter strips, converted drainage ditches to functional streams and protected valuable streamside land through permanent conservation easements,” Winters explains. “We believe our efforts have been successful as our raw water sampling is showing improvements in water quality.”
Throughout Ohio, municipal water treatment organizations are teaming up with conservationists and farmers to protect drinking water sources for millions of Ohioans. There is, of course, a “conservation twofer” at work here: 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.
“As a water utility, protecting our water supplies is not just the right thing to do,” Winters explains. “Cleaner source water saves money on treatment costs — a savings that can then be passed along to our customers.”
The City of Columbus and municipalities across the country have learned that it is often easier and cheaper to work with nature instead of against it. More and more people are waking up to the countless benefits from nature that we enjoy. Clean water is just one. This time of year, a shaded stream (the perfect spot for a prom photo) may be another.
Josh Knights is Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about The Nature Conservancy’s work at nature.org/ohio.