| For one week, let’s remind everyone to “Protect the Source”
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For one week, let’s remind everyone to “Protect the Source”

By Chi Ho Sham
AWWA President


As we hear unsettling reports of water quality problems, drought, wildfires, and climate change, it’s easy to understand why so many communities are concerned about their long-term water supplies.

Now is the perfect moment to consider a critical question: what’s the best and most efficient way to assure safe and affordable drinking water in our communities? The answer is source water protection. Simply put, if we keep our rivers, lakes, groundwater wells, and other drinking water sources free from pollutants, it's easier and less expensive to keep tap water safe and healthy.

Protect the Source with Chi Ho ShamThe American Water Works Association (AWWA) has declared Sept. 26-Oct. 2 Source Water Protection Week, and for seven days, water utilities and many other partners will urge consumers, public officials and others to “Protect the Source.” Some organizations will tell stories about how they collaborate with others to protect source waters. Others will share images of their water supplies through social media (post your photos using the #ShowYourSource hashtag).

A week from now, many more people will know where their drinking water originates, understand how their actions impact those drinking water sources, and will be motivated to support policies that keep that water clean.

In 1736, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Franklin was talking about fire safety, not water, but his words carry wisdom for everyone who cares about public health and reliable water supplies. Source water protection is the first line of defense in keeping our drinking water safe and accessible.

North American water utilities spend millions of dollars each year on source water protection. They know that by dedicating these resources, they are in turn saving money that would otherwise have to be spent on water treatment or alternative, more expensive, and less convenient supplies.

From mountains to farmlands to urban settings, source water protection is accomplished in many ways. Many communities draw their water supplies from forested watersheds, so source water protection is intimately tied to maintaining healthy wooded ecosystems. Trees act as natural filters for water, cleaning out sediment and pollutants that may otherwise make their way downstream and to drinking water intakes, increasing the cost of treatment.

Some of the most significant threats to drinking water sources come from nutrient runoff, often from urban stormwater and agricultural operations. Fertilizers and animal waste can find their way into waterways that lead to drinking water supplies, sometimes causing harmful algal blooms that require extensive treatment or switching to a different source. In recent years, U.S. Department of Agriculture programs are devoting substantial resources to helping farmers and water utilities collaborate to protect drinking water and reduce treatment costs. Because again, the costs of remediation dwarf the costs of pollution prevention.

Still other source water threats come from pollutants we use every day. Per- and polyfluorinated compounds – or PFAS as they’re commonly known – are human-made chemicals used in products ranging from non-stick pans to firefighting foam. There is concern that certain PFAS are a threat to human health, and they are turning up in both underground and surface water supplies. The cost of removing them could prove astronomical, and unless those who created PFAS and are responsible for the contamination are held accountable, those costs will be absorbed by tap water consumers. 

There are small steps we can all take to protect source water. For example, simply not using the toilet as a trash can help, because after wastewater is cleaned, it is discharged into rivers and streams that may later be tapped for drinking water. The cleaner that water is, the less expensive the drinking water treatment. We can also remember that, as we are enjoying our forests, reservoirs, and streams, all water is potentially source water, and we should treat it with care. Moreover, not dumping pollutants such as used motor oil, antifreeze, pet waste and left-over pesticides into storm drains can help us keep our water safe.

So, for one week, let’s all do our part to help everyone celebrate and recognize the connection between our source water and the water we drink. In doing so, we will enjoy better health, a cleaner environment, and ultimately, lower water bills.