The need for improved water resource protection is urgent, yet land-use activities increasingly imperil our water supplies. With that in mind, we’re excited to present a three-part blog series, “Watershed Paths to Water Protection,” on citizen stewardship of water resources by Karen Schneller-McDonald, author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources.
We’ve seen the headlines.
And that’s just the beginning, as threats to water quality become reality, affecting life and health in an ever-growing list of communities.
How can we protect our water? To facilitate local discussion about water protection, the Hudson Valley Regional Council and the Saw Kill Watershed Community hosted a workshop on September 25 in Red Hook, a small Dutchess County town on the Hudson River. People filled the community meeting room, drawn by a shared concern: protecting their drinking water.
A panel of individuals shared their personal experiences with drinking water contamination. Ophra Wolf, from the Newburgh Clean Water Project, described the city of Newburgh’s drinking water crisis after the toxic chemical PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) was found in its primary reservoir, Lake Washington. New York State has since declared the Stewart Air National Guard Base, a major source of the contamination, a state Superfund site. The city faces long-term challenges of removing contamination, providing medical attention to residents exposed to the water, and addressing water quality degradation in the streams, wetlands, and open spaces that naturally filter water and feed its reservoirs.
Elevated levels of the toxic chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) have been found throughout the village of Hoosick Falls water system.
Debra Hall described how residents in the Town of East Fishkill lost their water source when wells were contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and trichloroethane (TCA), toxic chemicals in wastes dumped on the ground decades ago by Hopewell Precision Inc., a fabricator of sheet-metal products. The EPA has authorized $12 million toward three years of construction costs to pipe clean water to approximately 325 properties where groundwater is contaminated.
Michael Hickey, a former village trustee in Hoosick Falls, became suspicious about local well water quality. The samples he sent out for testing contained elevated levels of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). Found throughout the village’s water system, this toxic chemical has been used since the 1940s in the manufacture of industrial and household products, including teflon, that resist stains, grease, and water.
These speakers brought home the importance of taking action to protect water now, to avoid such problems in the future. Other panelists shared information and guided a group discussion about how to protect water: John Nolon (Pace University land-use law attorney), Elisa Chae (DEC watershed specialist), and Dan Shapley (Hudson Riverkeeper water quality specialist).
Towns like Red Hook, where the water is still safe to drink, are heeding lessons learned from other communities. Residents are turning to watershed management as one way to protect water and prevent future contamination.
Watersheds and Water Issues
Local watershed groups like the Saw Kill Watershed Community are springing up across the country. In the Hudson River watershed alone, over thirty local groups have formed to protect water in their communities.
Why watersheds? All of the water we use comes from a watershed—even though miles of pipeline may separate your tap from its water source. Protecting water presents unique challenges because water is always on the move (see illustration below), across the land and downstream.
- Water follows watershed boundaries—not municipal boundaries. All water in a watershed is connected through a network of streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds, and groundwater.
- Water is a shared resource that requires intermunicipal cooperation for protection.
- Water protection is a land use issue. Land use activities can change the condition of a watershed’s land and water, affecting water quality and supply.
As communities grow, water quality and supply are affected by increased consumption, wastes, contaminants, and land development. Water contaminants reach drinking water via surface water, air, groundwater, and soil. Sources of contamination include:
- Stormwater runoff
- Contaminant discharges
- Chemical spills
- Landfill seepage
- Wastewater discharges
- Septic system effluents
- Eroded banks
- Agricultural runoff.
We depend on water quality testing to detect unsafe chemicals. A glass of water may look okay but still contain bacteria, chemicals, or other contaminants that will make you sick.
When we protect watersheds for drinking water, we benefit from other watershed services, like flood protection, groundwater replenishment, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
Another challenge is making connections between the watershed’s surface water and groundwater, to trace contamination pathways and also to protect water supply. For example, under natural undisturbed conditions, groundwater discharges into a stream. A well intercepts some of the groundwater that would have gone to the stream, and changes its flow direction by pulling it to the well. Increased well pumping (or installation of multiple wells in the same area) can intercept a significant amount of groundwater by diverting its flow from the stream and drawing it to the well instead.
Law and home rule
Federal and state laws protect some of our water resources under certain conditions, but none of them protect watersheds. These laws have limitations. For example:
- Existing water quality regulations may not be up to date (new chemicals and research, e.g., pharmaceuticals, microplastics);
- Regulatory thresholds for some chemical contaminants differ from health thresholds (thresholds are not even available for thousands of untested chemical contaminants);
- Water withdrawal and transport to places outside the watershed are not regulated by municipal laws in most communities.
New York State communities can play an important role in local water protection by creatively applying their home rule authority (e.g., land use and zoning regulations), forming intermunicipal partnerships, encouraging individual well testing, and implementing watershed protection.
Recommendations from residents who have lost their water reached workshop attendees with a new sense of urgency:
- If you get your water from an individual well, have it tested for a full suite of chemicals (as done in Hopewell Junction).
- When you suspect local illnesses may be connected to sources of drinking water, test water for locally produced contaminants.
- Protect lake and wetland buffers so they can perform critical functions in water quality protection—before they are lost to development build-out.
Community action is most effective when it’s based on an understanding of science and regulatory tools, whether your community is in a water crisis, or seeking to prevent one. When we protect watersheds for drinking water, we benefit from other watershed services, like flood protection, groundwater replenishment, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
Ultimately, water protection will depend on our shared energy: the power of community interest in water as a critical resource; personal stories; and whether we care enough as individuals to get involved, ask questions and insist on answers. It all depends on whether you and I will step up, speak out, and take action.
Karen Schneller-McDonald is the author of Connecting the Drops: A Citizens’ Guide to Protecting Water Resources. A wetland and water resources specialist, she is the president of Hickory Creek Consulting LLC.