National Effort to Protect Water Supplies

This article is a piece taken from the feature story of this quarter’s Rural Water magazine. To read the full article and other stories, visit the digital edition of Rural Water.

By Paul Hempel and Kimberly Mihelich, Colorado Rural Water Association

The Farm Bill was re-authorized by Congress in December 2018 with overwhelming bipartisan support and includes more emphasis on the importance of source water protection. The Farm Bill directs the USDA, via the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), when implementing any conservation program, to “encourage practices that relate to water quality and water quantity that protect source water for drinking water while also benefitting agricultural producers.” The bill directs USDA to work collaboratively with community water systems to identify local priority areas for source water protection efforts and to offer additional incentives to encourage farmers to employ conservation efforts that benefit source water protection.

Finally, the updated bill requires USDA to set aside at least 10 percent of total conservation program funding each year for use on projects focused on source water protection. These provisions are intended to make USDA “emphasize the importance of protecting sources of drinking water” in its bevy of conservation programs. These include a reauthorization of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which offers USDA grant assistance to farmers who partner with nearby water utilities and other local stakeholders on joint projects that protect or improve water quality or meet other stated environmental objectives. The reauthorization amends RCPP to explicitly make projects related to the “protection of source waters for drinking water” an eligible expense for RCPP assistance.

CRWA is in the initial stages of planning exactly this type of project. In 2016, CRWA worked with Dallas Creek Water Company located outside of Ridgway, CO to complete a SWPP. Sedimentation and turbidity were determined to be the highest priority potential contaminants to their source waters. In addition to the NRCS and Dallas Creek Water Company, CRWA will be partnering with the CDPHE, Shavano Conservation District and local landowners on a project to identify and mitigate areas in the watershed that are experiencing stream bank erosion.

CRWA has collaborated on additional projects to advance source water protection planning throughout Colorado including the production of the Sedgwick County Children’s Water Festival in September 2018. The purpose of the festival was to educate students, grades 3 – 6, about water resources and present ways they can help ensure a future where both the quantity and quality of water resources are protected and managed wisely. Students spent half a school day attending water-related presentations and visiting interactive displays in a local exhibit hall. The presentations engaged students in water education activities on topics including water origination, water conservation and water quality. Over 300 students attended the festival and because of the dedicated work performed by CRWA, the event was a success.

Many SWP plans in Colorado involve opening modes of communication between the oil and gas community and drinking water providers, and in 2016, CRWA produced the “Protecting Source Water in Colorado During Oil and Gas Development” guide. The guide describes how oil and gas development could impact source water; the regulatory mechanisms that local, state, and federal government agencies utilize to protect source water from potential oil and gas development impacts; and how government and non-government water providers can participate in these regulatory processes and use private agreements with oil and gas operators to protect their drinking water supplies.

To advance private landowner education in our state, CRWA produced a pair of On-site Wastewater Treatment System (OWTS) videos that educate homeowners about OWTS regulations, installation, components, and maintenance in order to prevent against OWTS failure and thus potential impacts to surface water and groundwater drinking supplies in 2017. These videos were circulated to county health departments statewide and are also on the USEPA website located under Septic Systems.

Currently, CRWA is co-producing the West Slope Source Water Protection/Keep It Clean Partnership marketing campaign. This campaign combines the efforts of water providers and watershed groups by creating a communication nexus for their constituents. The connection between healthy lakes, rivers, streams, groundwater and drinking water will be emphasized leading to a change in how the public views water in their daily activities. Two $5,000 source water protection grants from CDPHE are helping to fund the project, and a combination of eight counties and municipalities along with the White River National Forest have committed $1,000 a year for a three-year period. Keep It Clean Partnership will provide stream crossing signs, bi-lingual informational pamphlets, coloring books and informational water bill inserts to promote the campaign as a regional collaborative effort.

In 2019, CRWA is launching the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) integration project as part of their contract with CDPHE and in partnership with Coalitions and Collaboratives, Inc. WFDSS is a web-based tool developed by the federal government designed to assist fire managers in making streamlined decisions during wildfire response. This system makes data analyses and reports visible to all levels of federal fire managers. WFDSS integration will make water system infrastructure data, as described and deemed critical by PWS, visible to fire response teams. CRWA will be working with PWS to update and refine collection and integration of their data into WFDSS in order to expand the data set to include all water providers within the State of Colorado. Data integration will allow fire suppression and post-fire restoration managers to properly evaluate all “values at risk” and make informed decisions on how to dedicate resources to protecting critical, high value resources.

CRWA Source Water Protection specialists and our colleagues across the country see the importance of our respective roles in helping to protect community drinking water supplies. We all come equipped with a diverse skill-set, are dedicated to our jobs and passionate about our work. There is a deep feeling of pride and gratitude that goes along with being a Specialist and helping public water systems and their communities develop and implement their SWPPs.