Leadership for Potomac Source Water Protection

Washington, DC tidal basin

By: Bruce Hull

Water sustains us. Cities thrive because they have ample, clean water. Yet the natural infrastructure providing this water erodes as homes, businesses, roads and schools replace forests, fields, and farms. Maintaining ample supplies of clean water gets increasingly difficult and expensive when we must replace “green” infrastructure with engineered “grey” infrastructure.  New York City saved billions by investing in its green infrastructure.

As part of their graduate studies in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, professionals from business, government, and civil society formed consultancy teams to propose strategies for promoting source water protection in the Potomac Watershed. Their goal was to keep our rivers and aquifers full, water clean, and natural infrastructure functioning. Over 6 million people live in the region and most get their water from the basin’s rivers and reservoirs. This blog post describes several of their projects with links to their reports (some files are hefty and may take a while to load).

  • Few places in the Potomac watershed have undergone more dramatic changes than Loudon County, one of the nation’s fastest growing counties over the last 10 years. One consultancy team developed a series of workshops to bring together developers, land owners, planners, elected officials and other key stakeholders to build capacity, share information, and build momentum towards taking the collaborative actions needed to sustain development in the region while protecting water quality and quantity.
  • Agriculture uses 70% of water worldwide and is a major source sediment and excess nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay. One consultancy focused on agriculture along the Shenandoah River between Front Royal and Harpers Ferry. They proposed numerous strategies to fund and implement best management practices that maintain both water quality and agricultural profits.
  • Another team made the business case for utilities, bottlers, and other businesses to invest in their water supplies. Numerous risk mitigation strategies exist and make economic sense because these companies are highly dependent on water. Other case studies exist at professional organizations such as WBCSD.
  • The Occoquan Watershed already has an aggressive source water protection program but offers fascinating challenges because it is located within or services some of region’s most populous and urbanized municipalities (i.e., Fairfax, Prince William County, Loudon)
  • Two other teams looked at the related challenge of managing pollution caused by storm runoff using green infrastructure. One project looks at reaching ethnically diverse populations in Washington, DC and another looks at Blacks Run/Cooks Creek.

The Potomac Watershed region presents an especially difficult challenge because water crosses so many jurisdictional boundaries. It is difficult to connect the multiple downstream utilities, companies, and other consumers who depend on water flowing from the countless upstream farmers, developers, homeowners, and city planners that daily make decision affecting our natural infrastructure.

Students were motivated and advised by leaders in our region working to protect and improve our water: Eric Eckl of Water Words That Work; Karin Bencala of The Potomac Drinking Water Source Protection Partnership; Stephanie Flack of The Nature Conservancy’s Potomac River Project; Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross; General Manager of Washington Aqueduct, Tom Jacobus; and General Manager Loudoun Water Fred Jennings.

Meeting the challenges of sustainable development requires leaders. We are fortunate to have people like this in our region.