The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Advancing a new sustainable infrastructure paradigm and practice in the Northwest and beyond

The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog

Clean and Safe Drinking Water Starts Upstream

June 1st, 2016 · No Comments · Water

By Cathy Kellon – Geos Institute
Working Waters Director

Being a municipal water manager is a difficult job and climate change is making it even more so. Ask anyone who actually has that job and they will tell you. Tasked with ensuring adequate supplies of clean drinking water, water managers have had to deal with the spectrum of conditions from drought years to 100 year floods since the invention of indoor plumbing. With climate change, that spectrum of possible conditions is widening, with more extreme climate disruptions already being experienced in communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Climate scientists tell us that changing conditions will make our water supplies much less predictable, with more intense and frequent storms, floods, and droughts. What was already a variable system is getting even more so, and is coupled in many areas with the added strain of an increasing regional population. According to the National Climate Assessment, “Changes in the timing of streamflow related to changing snowmelt are already observed and will continue, reducing the supply of water for many competing demands and causing far-reaching ecological and socioeconomic consequences.”

This means bigger headaches for the region’s water managers.

Their work is important to all of us. People’s lives depend on how well water managers do their jobs. When they do their job well, residents do not think about their water manager or their water system. When the job of the water manager is not done well, problems can easily spiral, creating community-wide emergencies and risking the health of residents. Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan, how important clean water is to the overall health of a community.

Approximately 1/2 of Oregonians and 1/3 of Washingtonians rely on streams and rivers for their drinking water. Unfortunately, how we have settled and developed the landscape over the past 150 years has diminished stream and watershed health. This has, in turn, reduced the reliability of clean water for our cities and towns.


Wenatchee River (Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons)

Water managers – especially those in small towns – find themselves pinched between meeting everyday challenges, including increasingly stringent regulatory requirements for water quality, and a lack of financial resources to meet them. The necessarily tight regulatory structure around drinking water creates appropriate goals that need to be met in order to ensure a safe water supply. If we want high quality water supplies, we need to have high water quality standards. No argument there. But those standards are not always easy to achieve, especially given the financial limitations within which water managers must find solutions to a variety of water quality and quantity issues. Water managers need more tools besides concrete and chemicals.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Watershed restoration is an effective strategy for improving water quality while keeping water treatment costs down. We have known for decades that healthy watersheds do a good job of filtering water. And, the cleaner water is when it comes into water treatment facilities, the faster and cheaper it is to treat. Even in large storm events, water coming off of healthy landscapes is generally cleaner and less turbid than water coming off of damaged landscapes. Unlike traditional “grey” infrastructure approaches (concrete and chemicals), which may be very effective at meeting only a single goal, restoration-based, green infrastructure solutions work harder for us by creating a host of benefits for nature and people.

At the Geos Institute, we are helping towns throughout the Pacific Northwest incorporate green infrastructure into their drinking water management to reduce pollution, decrease water treatment costs, minimize the cost of long-term infrastructure maintenance, and support community and environmental health, all while preparing for a changing climate. We are working to make it easy for towns and water managers to turn to nature-based solutions whenever possible, instead of concrete and chemicals, in order to meet their water quality and quantity goals.

By partnering with communities and natural resource agencies, we are helping to restore watershed health as a means of securing clean water for people while improving freshwater habitat for fish and wildlife. Our long-term goal is to expand these partnerships to include academic institutions that can help us answer questions about what type of restoration works best for which water quality issue in what locations, how much restoration is enough, and what does it cost. Answering these questions will allow water managers and regulatory agencies to have more confidence that restoration-based, green infrastructure solutions really can deliver cleaner water at a lower cost.

At the Geos Institute, we worked for 13 years restoring access for native fish to almost 1,300 river miles of habitat in the Rogue River Basin. As that project has wrapped up over the past two years, we have set our sights on a new target – restoration designed to benefit community water systems AND fish throughout the Pacific Northwest. Through our Working Waters initiative, we are one of the organizers of the Drinking Water Providers Partnership and are actively developing partnerships with towns that are looking for innovative ways to address their increasingly difficult water management challenges.

We produced the above video to raise awareness about watershed health as a tool for water managers and towns confronted with rapidly shifting climate conditions. We hope it will spur the public conversation:


Tags: ········

No Comments so far ↓

There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment