Building back better after a drinking water disaster

“A water utility, a land trust and a community group is a powerful coalition.” — ANGIE ROSSER, West Virginia Rivers Coalition

By Land Trust Alliance August 29

The following case study appears in “Taking the Plunge: Guidance and Inspiration to Help Land Trusts Protect and Restore Water Quality.” Download the complete guide here.

A leaking chemical tank spilled into the Elk River in January 2014. It left 300,000 people without safe drinking water in and around the state’s capital city of Charleston. The spill made national news and galvanized community concern about safe drinking water, particularly among parents. The spill also compelled West Virginia Rivers Coalition to establish the connection between its clean water mission and ensuring safe drinking water.

“We broadened our base in a significant way,” says Angie Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “Even with people who would never consider themselves activists.”

West Virginia Rivers Coalition is an advocacy organization and its initial response focused on improving state policy. Despite working with a state legislature that is “industry-friendly,” WVRC successfully supported a new law (SB 373) that requires all public water systems to enact source water protection plans. These source water plans must include water management strategies, which can include land conservation, and define zones of critical and peripheral concern.

WVRC also created the Safe Water for West Virginia program to assist utilities and communities to conduct outreach, education and events highlighting clean water. Along with this program, WVRC also formed the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative. The collaborative organized around protecting and restoring land for the benefit of safe drinking water in the Eastern Panhandle of the state.

With support from the Chesapeake Land and Water Initiative (LWI), this group employed a collaborative partnership model that brought together WVRC, the accredited Potomac Conservancy, local land trusts, farmland protection boards, watershed groups and water utilities. Together, these organizations and agencies had the additional capacity and technical expertise necessary to conserve land in zones of critical and peripheral concern outlined in the new source water protection plans — something the local water utilities would not have been able to do alone.

“A water utility, a land trust and a community group is a powerful coalition,” Rosser says. Still, implementation of source water protection plans is “an unfunded mandate,” according to Rosser; the small grant program administered by the State Department of Health and Human Resources provides funding typically for monitoring or early warning systems. The collaborative partners had to find other ways to conserve land in support of these plans.

They started by identifying the most important properties to target for conservation. With support from the LWI, collaborative partners worked with Chesapeake Conservancy to develop a parcel prioritization tool. The tool aggregated data on water-relevant factors, such as tree canopy, karst geology and source water areas to highlight key parcels that would have the highest benefit to water quality if they were protected and restored. As a result, forested riparian buffers emerged as a major focus for protection due to their benefits to both stream quality and drinking water. The tool also had embedded tax and parcel data that enabled collaborative partners to easily generate a list of landowners who owned priority properties, which greatly facilitated the collaborative’s subsequent outreach and education efforts.

An additional benefit of working in a collaborative partnership was the community engagement that partners were able to achieve by working together. WVRC had wanted to do more to engage the public in work that prevented future water quality pollution, an issue about which most Americans express significant concern. By working with water utilities, and, by extension, all of their customers, the collaborative was able to hear concerns directly from community members and more readily respond to these concerns. Rosser recalls especially poignant meetings with the NAACP, who compared the spill in West Virginia to the Flint water crisis.

Rosser says that West Virginians are living in the shadow of what happened that day, as are other communities across the nation, whether they’re aware of it or not, that have experienced drinking water contamination. These communities wrestle with the choice to be reactive and deal with the consequences of inaction or do everything they can to plan ahead and prevent future disasters.

“It wasn’t one bad day,” says Rosser, “For us, it was weeks and months. It takes a disaster to awaken us and remind us why we have to care about what happens upstream; even if it’s inconvenient for someone. It’s an important investment to make.”