It’s a warm Friday evening in August, and hundreds of families have gathered at a local park to watch a free outdoor movie hosted by Jefferson County Parks and Recreation.

Before the feature film, moviegoers watch a short video about three local watershed groups, and how they work with kids, residents, and local government to restore local waterways. They learn about how they can get involved with groups like the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition, Elks Run Watershed Group, and the fledgling Bullskin Run Watershed Association. They learn a little about the City of Charles Town’s source water protection plan for their drinking water.

A family film festival isn’t the first thing that comes to mind to spread the word about protecting water supplies. And that’s exactly why West Virginia Rivers Coalition sponsored the series as part of its Safe Water for West Virginia. “Most of what impacts water supply happens upstream of the intake, where the majority of county residents live and work,” said Autumn Crowe, program director for WV Rivers. “What we do on our lawns and parking lots matters, too.”

Crowe said ensuring safe drinking water goes beyond preparing for emergencies. “We take care of water in part by taking care of the land around us; it’s just as important.”

These events and others are part of the WV Rivers Safe Water for West Virginia project. It was created to help water utilities implement their requirements under a law passed after the 2014 water crisis that left people in nine counties without access to safe water. “The film series is one way to connect with people who are not on Charles Town’s water system, but whose actions can impact it,” explained Crowe.

The program also has provided funding support for a native-plant nursery being developed by the Region 9 Planning and Development office for Charles Town. The nursery uses wastewater from the treatment plant. In addition to this innovative recycling of water, the nursery will provide native tree stock for forest buffers along streams—these help keep runoff out of streams.

In all, WV Rivers is collaborating with local utilities and community groups on three projects in the county, each with an eye on finding new ways to get people involved in water protection.

Another effort is along Elks Run, which is the water supply for Harpers Ferry. There, a few dozen people—from businesses, agencies like the WVDEP and Conservation District, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and Elks Run Watershed Group—are doing some heavy lifting. They’re examining Harpers Ferry’s source water plan alongside a restoration plan for Elks Run.

Then the group will choose on-the-ground projects that address both plans. WV Rivers will provide funds to help those projects. “It’s exciting to see how the wisdom of people from such diverse backgrounds can be brought together to have an impact upstream,” said Greg Finch, who is coordinating the Harpers Ferry initiative.

An Effort to Enhance Waterways

The third project involves local land conservation groups and agencies and Jefferson County’s three municipal water utilities. Together they are exploring how the county’s successful land conservation efforts can be focused on the streams that supply drinking water.

One of the main tool conservation groups use is called a conservation easement. It’s a permanent agreement in which a landowner gives up certain rights to their property but retains use and ownership of the property. Jefferson County’s conservation community has been among the state’s most successful, ranking third in the state for acreage under easement—a major achievement considering the size of the county.

The vision is based on New York City’s water supply, among the cleanest in the world. Decades ago, the city began buying and accepting donations of easements as a way to create buffers along the Delaware river, its main water supply. It hasn’t been implemented in a sustained way within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In this project, called Private Lands, Public Waters, the partners are overlaying Jefferson County’s green infrastructure map with each municipal water utility’s source water protection plan. The plans map zones of critical and peripheral concern; these are the land areas that could most impact the safety of drinking water. For zones of critical concern, planners mapped the areas in which a spill or contamination event could reach a water intake within five hours. Zones of peripheral concern have a longer flow time.

Conservation easements can help by implementing “best management practices” that minimize the threats of adverse events, as well as improving the day-to-day management on those lands. The agreements with landowners are voluntary.

The easements can help protect water supplies regardless of the reason it was put in place. The Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission, for example, has successfully conserved lands associated with the Civil War, particularly the Battle of Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. “Civil war battles and encampments often took place near water,” said Martin Burke, Chair of the commission. “So, while we’re interested in preserving historic landscapes, we understand the connection between our goals and clean water.”

The Private Lands, Public Waters partners are developing a five-year action plan to implement their ideas. As part of the process, they’re looking at ways to leverage existing state and federal funding streams that both help conserve the historic landscape of Jefferson County and pay long-term dividends for drinking water, water-based recreation, and wildlife.

Although the approaches differ, all three of the Jefferson County Safe Water projects have two things in common. First is to strengthen existing efforts already underway in the county. For the Shenandoah and Charles Town, it’s helping with community education and outreach to residents who aren’t necessarily on the town’s water supply. For Harpers Ferry and Elks Run, it’s involving the business community, developers, and others to implement existing plans to restore Elks Run. For Shepherdstown and the other two utilities, it’s bringing in the successful work of conservation groups into the effort to enhance waterways.

Each project also invites people from a variety of backgrounds and interests to play an important role for safe water. Together, the three projects could make Jefferson County the model for how people and state and local governments ensure safe water across West Virginia.

Free public event: A presentation on how voluntary land conservation can benefit local waterways, hosted by WV Rivers Coalition. Date: December 6, at 9am, at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education (213 North King Street, Shepherdstown). Presenter: Catlin Burke of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina will describe how a similar effort is working in the Tar Heel State. RSVP here.

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