Protecting Water by Protecting Land
How do we stop pollution from reaching the streams, rivers and reservoirs that provide our drinking water? One of the most effective ways to protect drinking water sources is to protect the land around them. Forests, wetlands, and open fields slow down rain and runoff, giving water time to filter gradually through the soil. This traps sediment and pollutants before they flow into streams and lakes, and allows groundwater to recharge.
Land trusts work with landowners, state and local governments, and other conservation organizations to protect drinking water sources across North Carolina. In the Piedmont, one of the most effective efforts is the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative (UNCWI). CTNC coordinates this partnership of nonprofit organizations and local governments that seeks to protect the lands most critical for ensuring the long-term health of drinking water supplies in the Upper Neuse River Basin.
The 770-square-mile Upper Neuse basin contains nine public drinking water reservoirs (Falls Lake, Lake Michie, Little River Reservoir, Lake Holt, Lake Orange, New Hillsborough Lake, Corporation Lake, Lake Ben Johnson and Lake Rogers) that together serve more than 600,000 people in Wake, Durham, Orange, Granville, Franklin, and Person counties.
Impressive Accomplishments Already
In 2006, the UNCWI partners, subject-matter experts, and local stakeholders developed a sophisticated conservation plan that identifies the most important tracts of land to conserve to protect water quality. Since then (as of January 2016), the land trusts and other partners have protected 90 properties that include 85 miles of stream banks on 7,698 acres. Another 10 projects with 22 miles of stream banks on 2,482 acres are in the works.
In 2014, the program was expanded to include the Swift Creek watershed, another local drinking water source. Also, the partners and stakeholders began working on an updated conservation plan to include current land cover data and to refine and refocus land protection priorities. The Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative 2015-2045 Conservation Strategy identifies 260,000 priority acres and sets a goal of protecting 30,000 acres over the next 30 years.
Generous financial support from local and state government agencies has been critical to the Initiative’s success. In particular, the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the city of Raleigh, Durham County and City, Orange County, and the city of Creedmoor have contributed substantial resources to protect high priority lands. UNCWI partners worked closely with Raleigh and Durham to help establish “watershed protection fees,” small monthly allocations (averaging only 60 cents a month per household in Raleigh) based on water use, to fund purchases of properties and conservation easements. These dedicated revenue sources ensure that there will be funding available in the future for protecting land to safeguard water quality.
In addition, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the Natural Resources Conservation Service provided UNCWI with a generous three-year grant in 2010 as part of the Endowment’s Healthy Watersheds through Healthy Forests Initiative. The grant enabled the partner land trusts to work with forest landowners to place conservation easements on their properties and/or implement forest stewardship plans.
There’s No Time to Wait
Water quality is declining in the Upper Neuse basin due to development and population growth. Population is projected to increase 50 percent in the basin between 2003 and 2025. This growth is expected to result in the development of an additional 50,000 acres and consume 76 percent of the remaining undeveloped land in the basin. As more land is developed and the watershed’s forest cover continues to shrink, water quality will suffer. That’s why it is critical to conserve intact natural areas along streams now.
UNCWI Land Trust Partners
The land trusts involved in the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative include the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (coordinator), Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, Eno River Association, Tar River Land Conservancy, Triangle Greenways Council, Triangle Land Conservancy, and The Conservation Fund.