Where does your city’s water come from? The question is simple but, as with food or energy, many of us don’t know the answer. Beyond faucets, pipes and municipal treatment facilities, the average H2O consumer probably isn’t aware of all the rivers and lakes that form her vast watershed.
A new project by The Nature Conservancy could change that. Titled the Urban Water Blueprint, it maps dozens of city watersheds and makes a compelling argument for a greener approach to engineering the flow to our tap. Instead of relying on costly capital projects to filter sediments and pollution, urban officials should invest in the “natural infrastructure” of riverbanks, forests and farmlands that affect the quality and quantity of their water before it even reaches city boundaries.
According to Daniel Shemie, one of the project’s architects, a growing number of agencies are gravitating toward this upstream “treatment.”
“Utilities are generally aware of where their water comes from,” he says, adding that many realize it’s not just better for watershed health to address pollution and sediment at the source — it’s also cheaper.
Here are five cities from the massive report that successfully utilize their watershed’s natural infrastructure to purify and conserve. From Santa Fe’s fire prevention strategies to San Diego’s farm incentives, these regions benefit from a number of low-tech but highly creative solutions.
New York City’s watershed conservation policies are so famous in the world of what Shemie calls “water nerds” that they’re only alluded to in the Blueprint’s companion report. But for those of us who don’t know offhand why New York boasts the champagne of drinking water, it’s an interesting example.
According to Shemie, the city’s extra-urban strategies include a mix of land protection, reforestation and agricultural best management practices. Needing to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act in the ‘90s, officials realized they could either build an $8-10 billion treatment plant or clean city water much more cheaply through partnerships with farmers and loggers to address runoff and erosion. They’ve also invested in open space and land conservation upstate to keep streams and rivers pristine.
New York’s watershed, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
Due to widespread drought, California’s border city could easily war with Imperial Valley farmers for a shrinking water supply. Thankfully, the city and surrounding agricultural lands are used to doing more with less.
Because so much of the region’s water comes from the Colorado River, a federal cap on that widely-shared supply in 2003 inspired officials to incentivize agricultural water conservation. Regional farmers are now some of the most water-wise in the state, lining canals and using drip irrigation and micro sprinklers to spread the valued resource. By 2021 “these agricultural conservation measures will provide 37 percent of the city’s water,” according to the Blueprint.
“San Diego speaks to how California could be really resilient to changes in rainfall,” Shemie says.
San Diego’s watershed, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
Over the last decade, the small New Mexico city has taken a very proactive and somewhat unusual approach to watershed conservation — combating wildfires.
Officials have learned from history. In 2000, a fire in neighboring Los Alamos wiped out hillside vegetation, allowing topsoil and ash to pour freely into rivers and streams, with a hefty cleanup fee of around $17 million. Instead of waiting for a costly, crippling blaze, leaders in Santa Fe realized they needed to prevent such a disaster from happening again. Now, they’re investing in programs to thin out regional tree growth and burn regular, low-intensity fires every few years to keep their water clean.
Santa Fe’s watershed, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
Cape Town, South Africa
Open space easements around New York have improved the city’s water, but simple conservation isn’t enough in Cape Town’s watershed. Large portions of land are held in preservation trusts near the South African city, but non-native species like pine, acacia and eucalyptus threaten the water supply. Because they haven’t acclimated to the region’s climate, they suck up massive amounts of water to survive and spread.
One program called Working for Water trains people to remove these invasive plants and restore natives, which naturally need less. Since the program began in 1995, the region has seen stream flow gains according to the Blueprint, instead of exponential losses.
Cape Town highlights another boon of restoring water at its source, Shemie says: Jobs. The report states that 32,000 people are employed by Working for Water every year.
“Watershed restoration is very labor intensive, but not capital intensive,” he says. “You can create a predictable number of jobs every year.”
Cape Town’s watershed, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
As rainfall changes with the global climate, the Philippines capital city faces water scarcity. Instead of turning to large engineering projects, agencies are funding riparian restoration. “Adopt-a-watershed” programs partner volunteers with hillsides that need to be replanted, and one utility estimates that around 500,000 previously stripped areas will be re-forested by 2016.
Manila’s watershed, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.