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Opportunities to Work Together for Source Water Protection…By Adam T. Carpenter, AWWA Washington, D.C. Office

Opportunities to Work Together for Source Water Protection

By Adam T. Carpenter

November 2018


Protecting sources of drinking water is a challenging endeavor.  Some, although relatively few, utilities own or exert considerable control over the watersheds that supply raw water to their reservoirs and intakes or have control over activities happening around their groundwater wells and in areas that contribute to their source aquifers.  The reality is that many utilities have little direct control on what happens upstream of them. Therefore, to help protect drinking water sources, many utilities instead need to work on indirect, but equally important, ways of implementing source water protection measures.


Many methods to help with source water protection are tried and true also far from simple. AWWA has a source water protection committee, an online resource page on source water protection, and the G300 Source Water Protection standard complete with an operational guide.  Specific to working with agriculture, AWWA has produced materials such as the Guide to Working with USDA Programs, a whiteboard video, and an op-ed by CEO David LaFrance. Dozens of articles within Journal-AWWA discuss source water protection efforts from many perspectives. These resources lay out an enormous amount of knowledge on source water protection.


Recognizing that limited resources or concerns over cost-effectiveness can limit utility involvement, there’s a renewed and expanding opportunity to gain significant new protections and leverage utility investment with other interested groups. By working with agriculture and the farm conservation programs associated with them, utilities can overcome these barriers through effective partnerships that include both multiple payors (so utilities aren’t encumbered by the entire cost) and multiple beneficiaries (to build sustainable projects that reach both source water and other environmental goals.)



There are many activities that potentially impact sources of drinking water.  Traditional point sources defined in the Clean Water Act (such as power plants, factories, and wastewater treatment plans) make significant contributions to source waters, but also have considerable existing regulations and permit processes to help address downstream concerns.  There may be room for improvement, and revisions to these regulations are often considered, but the system is in place and generally working. Many cities have made great strides in combined sewer overflows, nutrient reductions, and in other activities, despite much work that remains to be done.  The same can be said about urban storm water systems, many of whom have made considerable progress addressing concerns in recent years, with the job continuing in most places.


Agriculture falls under a very different system.  Considered a non-point source (no specific point of discharge) and exempted from most parts of the Clean Water Act, agricultural runoff is addressed primarily through voluntary measures.  Much of the agricultural community runs on low margins, with prices for finished agricultural products being responsive to national and international markets.   This means that even with the best of intentions to protect natural resources, many farmers can only do so much without financial and/or technical assistance.  Recognizing this need, there’s an enormous investment in agricultural conservation already taking place.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in recent years has had roughly $4 billion per year to implement farm conservation, with the Farm Service Agency having roughly an additional $2 billion per year for the Conservation Reserve Program – meaning that farm conservation programs combined receive nearly $6 billion every year.  Although there are examples of some of those funds going to help protect sources of drinking water, much like their urban counterparts, more remains to be done.  Safe drinking water is vital to public health, and there’s an opportunity to help protect it through these programs, a huge win for everyone.  The agricultural community can help its neighbors, the utilities can help control uncertainty and risk, and the public can enjoy safer and more resilient water supplies.


There are many recent examples of successful partnerships between water utilities and agriculture.  Beaver Water District in Arkansas, and the City of Cedar Rapids (Iowa) have undertaken projects through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).  New projects in North Carolina, Illinois, and Kansas are getting started with new projects.  The recently announced Source Water Protection pilot of the National Water Quality Incentives program has sixteen watersheds being assessed for programs to help protect sources of drinking water.




These USDA/NRCS programs are all authorized by the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that needs to be renewed by Congress every few years.  The most recent one expired on September 30, 2018, and at the time this article was written, Congress was in a deadlock on how to proceed. Both the House and Senate have passed draft bills, but they differ in many ways. Although there are certainly differences within the conservation title, the biggest argument is over the future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Congress may end up striking a deal or may end up extending the previous farm bill for an additional year to give themselves more time to work out a compromise.


There are four provisions in the draft farm bill from the House and three from the draft farm bill from Senate that AWWA has advocated for.  Both draft bills include:


Making source water protection a specific goal of the farm conservation programs. Although improving water quality has long been a goal, protecting sources of drinking water has not been an explicit goal of the conservation programs. Although there are examples of source water protection activities throughout the conservation programs, for the most part it hasn’t been specifically targeted.  Including this in the program goals means that source water protection will be a specific target and its use will be tracked to identify trends and opportunities.


Include water utilities in the state and local committees that inform the conservation programs. A considerable portion of thee programs are informed by input from state and local groups.  Just like how source water protection concerns vary by type of source and several characteristics of the source and system, conservation needs vary regionally and by type of agricultural production.  Getting involved in the state technical committees and the local working groups is an important way to help direct conservation dollars towards source water needs.


Increasing cost share of practices with great downstream benefit. Many on-farm conservation measures have benefits both to some environmental goal while also increasing crop yield, reducing risks, or some other direct benefit to the farm. However, several the practices that benefit source waters are likely to have little to no on-farm benefit.  For this reason, even a federal 75% cost-share may not provide sufficient incentive for the producer to participate.  For this reason, we’re seeking higher rates, such as a 90% federal cost share, with the option for utilities and other partners to pick up the remaining costs.


Of the two drafts, only the House version contains the last provision, focused on setting aside part of the conservation program funds specifically for source water protection:


Dedicating 10% of most conservation funds to protecting sources of drinking water. Since the use of conservation dollars to help protect sources of drinking water is not currently tracked, it’s hard to know how much is currently spent in aggregate, but we believe it is well under 10% of conservation dollars. If the final farm bill does include this set-aside, we do not yet know which conservation programs will be included, but we expect it to provide a significant boost for this goal for all applicable programs.


We can’t be certain what will be in the final bill until it passes into law.  However, given most of these provisions are in both drafts of the bill, we’re very hopeful that at least some will become law, much to the benefit of drinking water supplies.




Despite being a federal agency, USDA programs administered by the NRCS are driven mostly at the local to state level.  There are a series of state technical committees and local working groups, who inform the NRCS state conservationist and his or her staff in prioritizing and planning where funds will be spent locally.  This makes sense, given the natural resources concerns in vegetable farming in California will likely be very different from those for cattle ranching in Texas or corn and soybeans in Illinois. Every state has agricultural producers, and many watersheds have at least some agricultural influence, especially given this definition includes not just crops but also other production such as livestock and timber-producing forestry. The challenges that utilities are facing that intersect with agriculture will also likely be different, be it nutrients, sediment, chemicals, or something else entirely.  For this reason, utilities with source water concerns should be in touch with their NRCS state conservationist and their local soil and water conservation districts to explore both existing and emerging programs that might help to fit their needs.


AWWA has built tools to help, as described at the beginning of this article, and we welcome additional feedback on what else may be helpful moving forward. The Source Water Collaborative also has a toolkit for getting started working with USDA programs.


Ultimately, the success of source water protection initiatives through farm conservation efforts hinges on utility involvement to identify concerns, suggest measures that would be beneficial, work with partners, and be partners in addressing these concerns. By reaching out, engaging, and working with NRCS, conservation districts, and the greater agricultural community, the water sector can open many doors toward improved source water protection.

Adam T. Carpenter is the manager of energy and environmental policy at AWWA (, Washington, D.C.


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