5 things we should be doing to protect our drinking water

May 4, 2016

We’re spoiled. Here in America, we take the clean water endlessly flowing out of our tap (for less than we pay for cable) for granted.

It’s taking severe catastrophes – occurrences as shocking as lead poisoning in children and water being trucked into towns in California – to turn our heads and hearts toward the health of the element supporting life for us all. There are 155,000 public water systems in the United States. Draw a line back from each of them, and you’ll find a watershed at its origin.

In honor of National Drinking Water Week, here are five things we should be doing to protect our water long before it ever makes it to our homes.

  • Plant more trees: Trees provide shade to lower water temperature and stabilize streambanks to reduce erosion. A buffer of native trees and vegetation can also serve as a filter for agricultural runoff. As fertilizer and other nutrients make its way from a farmer’s field to a river, the plants will serve as a barrier, protecting water quality. In 2015, The Freshwater Trust planted more than 12,000 native trees along rivers in the Pacific Northwest.


  • Build a fence: Keeping livestock and their manure out of waterways reduces nitrogen and phosphorus. It also protects streamside vegetation and bank structure. Excess nutrients cause algae blooms that threaten drinking water supplies. Remember Toledo? Half a million Ohioans were left without drinking water after an algae bloom plagued Lake Erie. Simple practices taken on farms nationwide can make a big difference.


  • Restore wetlands: Wetlands are giant filters. In central Illinois, wetlands are being restored in order to provide safe drinking water to 90,000 in Bloomington. The town’s reservoir has historically had high levels of nitrates, and instead of building an expensive treatment facility, the town chose to build wetlands, a decision that will have more widespread environmental benefits than the engineered option.


  • Use new tools: The 21st century affords the conservation community many opportunities to use new technologies to do more effective restoration. The Freshwater Trust has developed a toolkit that allows us to understand where restoration along a river would have the greatest benefit for the watershed as a whole. For the first time, those fixing rivers can see exactly what parts of a waterway need the most help.


  • Collaborate: Water should unite, not divide. After all, we all rely on the waterways running through our communities. In order to ensure enough clean water for future generations, farmers, conservationists, scientists, governments and corporations are going to need to communicate and compromise. It’s possible. In 2015, The Freshwater Trust did more than 40 voluntary deals with landowners to keep water in rivers that needed it. The producers still produced. Local economies didn’t crumble. More water was available for fish and to improve water quality. What’s happening in California is a microcosm of what’s to come if we don’t all start acknowledging water as the finite resource it is.

The list could go on. Replacing aging infrastructure. Properly disposing of paint and medication. The problems are plenty, but so are the solutions. Implementing any of them will mean remembering the entire watershed on the other end of the tap and that clean, healthy water in this country is far from promised – especially in the absence of action.

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