A Natural Solution to Water Security

(ALL INTERNAL RIGHTS, LIMITED EXTERNAL RIGHTS) Aerial photo of the view looking south toward the Gulf of Mexico down the Wax Lake Delta, Louisiana. The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program is a partnership among our five Gulf State Chapters to accomplish conservation across the entire Gulf ecosystem. The Gulf Program employs conservation professionals in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to restore and protect natural systems and natural areas across political boundaries. Photo credit: © Carlton Ward Jr.

There are many effective source water protection activities, including forest protection, reforestation and improvement of agricultural practices on lands near water sources.

To implement these strategies, The Nature Conservancy is working with cities and water users around the world to create water funds, which enable water users to collectively invest in source water protection activities for the purpose of securing better water quality and improving the health and well-being of local communities. The Conservancy and its partners already have 29 water funds in operation and another 30 in development. The first of these was created more than 15 years ago—in Quito.

“Communities downstream are going to benefit if their water comes when they want it and how they want it,” said Andrea Erickson, managing director for water security at The Nature Conservancy. “Source water protection can provide that connection between downstream users and upstream individuals—the farmers, ranchers and other community members that are a critical part of the solution.”

At a time when there is growing demand for limited water supplies—and when climate change is making availability of water even more uncertain—source water protection is a powerful strategy to not only secure clean water but also mitigate and adapt to climate change, protect biodiversity, and support human health and well-being across watersheds.

This global analysis demonstrates that four out of five of the more than 4,000 cities studied could meaningfully reduce sediment and nutrient pollution in the water they use through three source water protection activities—reforestation of pastureland, forest protection and the planting of cover crops.

In many cases, source water protection can pay for itself through water treatment savings. The Conservancy found that one in six of the cities studied could see a positive return on investment in source water protection through reduced annual treatment costs alone. But even cities that don’t break even on utility costs may realize great value through the other benefits that source water protection offers for people living in and around upstream watersheds and for the natural ecosystems that these watersheds support.

In addition to mitigating climate change, many source water protection measures can also help communities adapt to climate change impacts today and in the future. Changes in the hydrological cycle driven by climate change have resulted in increased incidences of both drought and flooding. Models predict increased soil erosion in 83 percent of source watersheds by mid-century and increased fire frequency in 24 percent.

It’s a scenario already evident in northern New Mexico, which is experiencing hotter, drier and longer fire seasons. These conditions are particularly dangerous in forests that are overgrown from fire suppression, where a wildfire can all but eviscerate the landscape.

“When these overgrown forests burn, they burn way too hot and destroy the headwater forests that are so critical for downstream users,” says Laura McCarthy, senior policy advisor for forest and fire restoration at The Nature Conservancy.

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