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Forests to Faucets: Protecting Drinking Water for Everyone

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water glass and forest

In 2022, a lack of rain that began in June baked lawns into crunchy straw, withered crops in local farm fields, and transformed normally free-flowing streams into random mud puddles where small fish struggled to survive. A changing global climate made that summer one of the hottest and driest on record in Massachusetts. The state declared a “Level 3-Critical” drought in the Connecticut River Valley in early August.

Drought not only ruins landscaping, reduces crop yields, and stresses wildlife, but it also threatens a fundamental resource that we often take for granted: Our drinking water. When we turn on the tap, most of us here in the Connecticut River Valley can expect clean water to drink, cook and wash with. But where does that water actually come from?

In our region, and across the country, the water we rely on often comes from the forest. The U.S. Forest Service says that 749 million acres of forest lands provide over half of our nation’s drinking water supply. Forest conservation is one of the most important ways to protect our drinking water, both its quality and availability, especially in the face of climate change.

Depending on where you live, your drinking water can come from a public source like a reservoir or a private source like a well. Reservoirs are surface waters—any body of water above ground, including rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands. According to the United States Geological Survey, in 2015, about 70% of freshwater used in the U.S. came from surface-water sources. Wells pull from ground water, defined as any water that soaks into the soil. It may remain deep in underground aquifers or it may eventually return to the surface.

Regardless of the source type, surface or ground, our water is part of a larger cycle that includes the land it flows through. Forests are especially important because they act as natural sponges, collecting rain and releasing it slowly into streams and rivers. They also filter sediments and other pollutants from the water in the soil before it reaches a water source, such as a stream, lake or river, producing clean water more cost-effectively than any human-made water treatment system. And, tree cover in a forest reduces evaporation, allowing more water to replenish underground aquifers.

Communities Must Work Together

In our region, communities often conserve forests not only in their own town but in neighboring towns, specifically to protect their public drinking water sources. These projects focus on “watersheds”—an area of land that absorbs rain and snow, which drains through connected streams, rivers, and lakes. Watershed boundaries are generally created by mountains, valleys, or ridges that divide a drainage area around its major surface waters. They don’t fit neatly within municipal boundary lines.

Kestrel recently partnered with the Town of Shutesbury to protect 34 acres of forest that contain the headwaters, or source, of Amethyst Brook along the Shutesbury/Pelham border. Amethyst Brook flows east to west into the Fort River, whose watershed contains all the reservoirs for the Town of Amherst and is the longest free-flowing tributary of the Connecticut River. This project has been funded through Community Preservation Act Funds, as well as the US Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program, which identifies protecting forests for “clean and abundant” drinking water as one of its main goals. This program also funded the Conservation Restriction by the MA Department of Fish and Wildlife in partnership with Kestrel that conserved 2,038 acres of land owned by WD Cowls, protecting drinking water for the Atkins Reservoir in Amherst and Quabbin Reservoir.

Tighe-Carmody Reservoir
The Tighe-Carmody Reservoir in Southampton provides high-quality drinking water to the City of Holyoke.

Though surface waters are more common sources of our drinking water, the water stored beneath the earth’s surface is also in need of protection. In partnership with Kestrel, the Town of Southampton recently received both State and Community Preservation Act funding to protect meadow and forestland centered over the Barnes Aquifer. The Barnes Aquifer system is a natural, underground complex of several geological formations extending for roughly 12 miles beneath portions of four communities: Westfield, Holyoke, Southampton, and Easthampton. Over 60,000 people depend on this aquifer for their drinking water.

If there’s one resource that links us all together, it’s water. Because water sources and systems are interconnected, the communities in our region benefit by working together to protect each other’s water supplies. This is especially important for environmental justice (EJ) communities, identified by the MA Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs as being “especially vulnerable” to environmental impacts due to income, minority status, and language barriers.

In the City of Holyoke, 76% of the population lives within an EJ community, and 99% of households get their water from Holyoke Water Work’s (HWW) reservoir system. The Tighe-Carmody Reservoir, one the two primary reservoirs for the City, is in the Town of Southampton. This reservoir can yield up to 13 million gallons of water per day, and though fluoridated and treated with chlorine, the Water Works’ Reservoir System remains one of only four systems in the Commonwealth with no extra filtration process, due to the naturally high quality of its water supply. To protect that high quality, HWW owns forests in Southampton, Huntington, Westhampton, and Montgomery.

We are all connected by water and the forested lands through which it flows. Fortunately, by working together we can protect both.

Hundreds of Acres of Forest Protection on Tap Now 

  • SOUTHAMPTON: A landscape-scale project is in progress to protect large areas of intact forests in several towns extending outward from Pomeroy Mountain in Southampton. This region supports land critical for wildlife habitat and broader movement in western Massachusetts, and is also the natural source of drinking water for many surrounding communities.
  • WESTHAMPTON & NORTHAMPTON: Now in the final phase of conserving 186 acres of forest across the border of the two towns. The land is adjacent to conserved lands around the Robert’s Reservoir region, designated by the state as an outstanding water resources area.

 

This article was originally written for the November 11, 2022 “Earth Matters” column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette by Bridget Likely, Conservation Manager, and Kari Blood, Community Engagement Director.

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