Energy & Environment

Stirring Up the Headwaters

Keeping urban water supplies clean depends on preventing contaminated runoff in the rural foothills where rivers originate.
by | September 2002

Safeguarding public water supplies has emerged as a political priority because of the threat of deliberate contamination by terrorists. At the same time, persistent drought is reminding communities across much of the country that they no longer can take ample quantities of water for granted. Hopefully, these particular predicaments will run their course, but preserving the sources of vital water supplies is likely to remain the most daunting environmental challenge governments will face for years to come.

Urban water supply agencies that serve millions of households now recognize that keeping vulnerable supplies unimpaired depends on preventing contaminated runoff in the forested mountains and foothills where rivers originate. For that to happen, local governments in lightly populated rural areas must be willing to implement runoff controls and restrain economic development--primarily to benefit distant cities. So far, Ellen Reckhow, a commissioner in Durham County, North Carolina, says, "It's been a tough sell up there."

In the past 30 years, federal and state regulations have cleaned many rivers, lakes and bays by enforcing end-of-pipe standards on factories and municipal sewage systems. But along the upstream reaches, mining, logging, farming, motorized recreation and second-home subdivisions have been crowding in on the headwaters that replenish the irreplaceable hydrological networks. By their nature, those dispersed but ever more serious threats can't be mitigated by the site permits and regular inspections that governments customarily use to regulate pollution.

What's more, the way most of the country's political map has been constructed, all but the shortest creeks and streams flow across numerous city, county and state government lines, so downstream jurisdictions can't directly control the quantity or the quality of water that flows their way from upper watersheds.

The New York Legislature recognized that dilemma in 1904 by granting New York City the power to condemn private lands in order to store and protect drinking water in its Catskill Mountain reservoirs. Now, federal and state environmental regulators are pushing regional watershed-protection strategies as a way of prodding upstream governments to adopt some stringent controls to safeguard the quality of the water that downstream residents drink. One problem, however, is that rural counties have less experience in regulating pollution and planning for how land is used. Another is that their land-owning residents tend to be hostile to government programs that they fear will limit their freedom to profit by selling or developing their property.

To protect crucial supplies for fast-growing Durham and its environs in North Carolina's Piedmont region, for instance, the Upper Neuse River Basin Association has proposed that Person County, higher up on the watershed, set limits on subdivision development and keep streamside buffers undisturbed. But since the local textile mill shut down, Person County has plenty of good water to supply its own needs and even court new industry. Local farmers aren't eager to bear the financial burden for protecting the Upper Neuse watershed so Durham and other downstream communities will have enough clean water to keep growing. Upstream counties may be willing to adopt runoff controls if downstream cities help pay for them, "but the folks down south aren't quite ready to say they're willing to do that," says Person County Manager Steve Carpenter.

New York City is mollifying Catskill communities' concerns by contributing $240 million toward sewage upgrades, revised farming practices and other steps that nearby towns and counties are taking to protect the city's reservoirs against degradation. While the city saves itself the $5 billion or so it would cost to start filtering the water instead, upstate communities are reaping economic rewards from jobs and city-financed infrastructure. Philadelphia and other major cities are also working with upstream community groups to promote mutually beneficial watershed plans. And a number of states are experimenting with trading systems that let municipalities pay farmers to curb non-point runoff.

Metropolitan governments also could provide something that is even more valuable. In the Rocky Mountains, for instance, some of the most conservative counties in the country are starting to worry that tranquil towns will be overrun by growth as outsiders move into spectacular wide-open spaces. So in the past three years, commissioners from 29 mountain and desert counties have signed up for community planning forums run by the National Association of Counties and the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute. Cities and suburbs in other regions discovered the hard way what sprawl can do to lakes and rivers. If they can work out ways to pass the lessons they've learned along, downstream governments could help rural counterparts farther upstream figure out for themselves how to look after the watersheds they share in common.

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