Earth Matters: Forests to faucets: Protecting drinking water for everyone

  • The Amethyst Brook in Amherst is surrounded by permanently conserved forests, which helps protect drinking water quality for nearby communities as well as for the town. RICHARD GOLDMAN/KESTREL LAND TRUST

For the Gazette
Friday, November 25, 2022

Autumn in the Valley has been a stunning parade of color this year. That’s a dramatic shift from just a few months ago, when dull brown seemed like the dominant hue. A lack of rain that began in June baked lawns into crunchy straw, withered crops in local farm fields, and transformed normally free-flowing streams into mud puddles where small fish struggled to survive.

A changing global climate made the summer of 2022 one of the hottest and driest on record in Massachusetts. The state declared a “Level 3-Critical” drought in the Connecticut River Valley in early August.

Drought not only ruins landscaping, reduces crop yields and stresses wildlife, but it also threatens a fundamental resource that we often take for granted: our drinking water.

When we turn on the tap, most of us here in the Connecticut River Valley can expect clean water to drink, cook and wash with. But where does that water actually come from?

Here, and across the country, the water we rely on often comes from the forest. In fact, forestlands provide over half of our nation’s drinking water supply. That means we can look to forest conservation as one of the most important ways to protect our drinking water: both its quality and availability.

Depending on where you live, your drinking water can come from a public source such as a reservoir or municipal well, or a private source such as a household well. Reservoirs are surface waters — any body of water above ground, including rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2015 about 70% of freshwater used in the U.S. came from surface water sources. Wells pull from groundwater — water that soaks into the soil. It may remain deep in underground aquifers or it may eventually return to the surface.

Regardless of the source type, surface or ground, our water is part of a larger cycle that includes the land it flows through. Forests are especially important because they act as natural sponges, collecting rain and releasing it slowly into streams and rivers. They also filter sediments and other pollutants from the water in the soil before it reaches a water source, such as a stream, lake or river, producing clean water more cost-effectively than any human-made water treatment system. And tree cover in a forest reduces evaporation, allowing more water to replenish underground aquifers.

In our region, communities often conserve forests not only in their own town but in neighboring towns, specifically to protect their public drinking water sources. These projects focus on watersheds — areas of land that absorb rain and snow, which drain through connected streams, rivers and lakes.

Watershed boundaries are generally created by mountains, valleys or ridges that divide a drainage area around its major surface waters. They don’t fit neatly within municipal boundary lines.

Right now, Kestrel Land Trust is partnering with the town of Shutesbury to protect 34 acres of forest that contain the headwaters of Amethyst Brook along the Shutesbury/Pelham border. Amethyst Brook flows east to west into the Fort River, whose watershed contains all the reservoirs for the town of Amherst and is the longest free-flowing tributary of the Connecticut River.

This project has been funded through Community Preservation Act Funds, as well as the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program, which identifies protecting forests for “clean and abundant” drinking water as one of its main goals.

This federal program also funded the acquisition of a Conservation Restriction by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Wildlife in partnership with Kestrel to conserve 2,038 acres of land owned by W.D. Cowls, protecting drinking water for the Atkins Reservoir in Amherst and the Quabbin Reservoir.

Though surface waters are more common sources of our drinking water, the water stored beneath the earth’s surface is also in need of protection. In partnership with Kestrel, Southampton recently received both state and Community Preservation Act funding to protect meadows and forestland centered over the Barnes Aquifer. The Barnes Aquifer system is a natural, underground complex of several geological formations extending for roughly 12 miles beneath portions of four communities: Westfield, Holyoke, Southampton and Easthampton. Over 60,000 people depend on this aquifer for their drinking water.

If there’s one resource that links us all together, it’s water. Because water sources and systems are interconnected, the communities in our region benefit by working together to protect each other’s water supplies. This is especially important for environmental justice communities — those that are especially vulnerable to environmental impacts due to income, minority status and language barriers.

In the city of Holyoke, 76% of the population lives within an environmental justice community, and 99% of households get their water from Holyoke Water Works’ reservoir system. The Tighe-Carmody Reservoir, one of the two primary reservoirs for the city, is in Southampton. This reservoir can yield up to 13 million gallons of water per day, and though fluoridated and treated with chlorine, the Water Works Reservoir System remains one of only four systems in the Commonwealth with no extra filtration process, due to the naturally high quality of its water supply. To protect that high quality, HWW owns forests in Southampton, Huntington, Westhampton and Montgomery.

We’re all connected by water and the forested lands through which it flows. Fortunately, by working together we can protect both.

Bridget Likely (she/her) is conservation manager for Kestrel Land Trust, and is currently working on watershed land conservation efforts in the Valley. Kari Blood (she/her) is community engagement director for Kestrel, and has been writing about land conservation for 12 years. 

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 13 years. Amid the pandemic, the Hitchcock Center adapted its programming and has a sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center during this difficult time, consider a donation at hitchcockcenter.org.