“Don’t Drink the Water” might sound like an old movie title, but our clean water sources are threatened by development.
One million Americans get sick and 900 die each year from drinking contaminated water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, may be more interested in building more expensive water purification plants than in protecting uncontaminated watersheds from development, according to Protecting the Source, a report put out by the Trust for Public Land.
A 1997 EPA study concluded the federal agency will need to spend $138.4 billion on infrastructure over the next 20 years to ensure adequate safe supplies of drinking water. The EPA arrived at this figure with out adequately considering the potential savings from protecting water at its source; a modest investment in watershed protection could significantly reduce expensive water purification processes down the road, the report charges.
Watershed land collects and directs rainwater, removing potentially deadly pathogens and pollutants. Development limits this function, causing a need for increased filtration and chlorinization, if the water can be purified at all. Despite this fact, Protecting the Source says critical recharge land is paved over at a rate equal to four-and-a-half square miles per day.
“Unmanaged development is the greatest threat to a watershed’s health,” says the report’s author Richard M. Stapleton. “Watershed land is the funnel that collects rainwater and directs it, by stream or by recharge, to the pool from which we drink. The pool can be a reservoir above ground or an aquifer below. For either, both the quality and the quantity of water retained depend heavily upon the condition of the watershed.’
Boston and Atlanta, for example, have been forced to abandon reservoirs overrun by development, and water bills are increasing around the country in order to pay for filtration and treatment to remove pesticides and protect against cryptosporidium. Some state and local governments have begun warding off the destructiveness of unmanaged construction on water supplies by passing legislation mandating the acquisition and preservation of watershed land. The fastgrowing mountain town of Gunnison, Colorado has purchased ranch land on top of an aquifer to prevent its development and the subsequent pollution of the aquifer below it. New Jersey’s Republican governor Christine Whitman says of her state policy, “Some watershed land must not be developed. Its natural value in buffering, storing, filtering, and recharging far exceed whatever commercial value it may hold.’ In other words, some legislators are convinced it may be far less expensive to protect water at its source than to purify it later.
“We’re looking again at the big picture now,” Stapleton explains, “at a symbiotic relationship where we combine benefits. If you protect watershed land, you not only protect the quality of the water, you protect the quantity of the water; you also provide open space, you provide habitat, and you reduce the potential for flooding. There are many, many benefits.”