When Jefferson County’s municipal water customers turn on their faucets, they may not think about saving farmland or Civil War battlefields. Martin Burke, chair of the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission, would like to change that. His group, which has helped preserve battlefields and historic properties in the county, is working with other land trusts and watershed groups on a model idea to protect drinking water supplies through conservation easements. They’ve launched an initiative, called the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative, to identify conservation opportunities adjacent to streams that feed municipal water supplies.
The Historic Landmarks Commission has been instrumental in preserving land associated with the Battle of Shepherdstown and parcels adjacent to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and the streams that feed them were the sites of Civil War battles and encampments,” said Burke. “When we conserve properties on those waterways, we’re taking a step toward safer drinking water.”
Elizabeth Wheeler, of the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board, works with farmers who want to preserve their land so that it’s available in the future for agriculture. While their focus is on preserving agricultural values, those efforts also help keep areas close to streams undeveloped. “Farmers love their land and have deep ties to our community,” she said. “They care about keeping their land in farming, and they understand the importance of their role as stewards of water resources.”
The Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle has assisted both groups, and also has accepted conservation easements on other properties along streams in the Eastern Panhandle. “Since our founding and first easement, our land trust has had an interest in water,” said president Grant Smith. That first easement, he said, was on a Morgan County stream that enters the Potomac, which provides drinking water to Shepherdstown and millions of customers downstream. It’s also the backup supply for Harpers Ferry.
A conservation easement is a voluntary contract between a landowner and a land trust, government agency, or qualified organization in which the owner places permanent restrictions on the future uses of some or all of their property—to protect scenic, wildlife, historic, water, or agricultural resources. Easements are tailored to meet the needs of each landowner. The landowner still owns the property and can use it, sell it, or leave it to heirs, but the restrictions of the easement stay with the land forever. Land trusts often accept donated easements, which may offer tax benefits to landowners. West Virginia’s local Farmland Protection Boards purchases easements with funds from real estate transfer taxes matched with federal funding, while the Historic Landmarks Commission has attracted funding from sources like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses offshore oil and gas royalties to pay for conservation.
The groups are collaborating with West Virginia Rivers Coalition to bring the success of voluntary local conservation into a long-term vision to protect land along streams critical to drinking water. They have formed the EP Safe Water Conservation Collaborative as a way for nonprofits and public agencies to share information and cooperate on projects. Their effort will focus on zones of critical and peripheral concern to municipal water supplies by working with landowners who voluntarily want to conserve their land.
Zones of critical concern are the drainage areas for which a contaminant could reach a public drinking water intake within five hours. Zones of peripheral concern are lands that could impact a drinking water intake within 10 hours of a contaminant getting into a waterway. Both are high priorities for land conservation because they limit residential and commercial development on those lands—according to the wishes of landowners. In Jefferson County, streams in these zones include Elks Run, Bullskin Run, and Evitts Run, which flows through Ranson and Charles Town to the Shenandoah above the city’s water intake.
Making the Distinction
“Safe water is something everyone cares about—and everyone has a role,” said West Virginia Rivers executive director Angie Rosser. “Sometimes we think of drinking water only when there is a problem. Our local land trusts can help make sure those problems don’t occur.”
Rosser explained that in Jefferson County’s landscape, even lands not directly adjacent to a year-round stream can impact drinking water. Sinkholes, for example, carry water underground where the groundwater connects with springs that emerge into local streams. “Jefferson is one of several West Virginia counties where there isn’t always a distinction between ground water and surface water. It’s just water. They mix together.”
West Virginia Rivers started the Safe Water for West Virginia program after a 2014 water crisis left 300,000 people in the Charleston (WV) area without access to safe water. After championing a law to require utilities to have source-water protection plans, they are working in communities to do what utilities can’t do—protect drinking water supplies upstream of intakes. “Water utilities don’t have a say in the quality of the water that reaches their intakes, but customers do,” said Rosser. “When residents and businesses support land conservation, they are supporting clean water—and, potentially, lower water treatment costs.”
Even streams in Berkeley County, like Opequon Creek, can impact water in Jefferson. The Opequon enters the Potomac upstream from Shepherdstown’s water intake. The Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board (BCFPB), a member of the Conservation Collaborative, has worked with landowners to preserve farmland within Shepherdstown’s zone of peripheral concern. The Berkeley County Council has provided funding through the local transfer tax to preserve farmland.
“Agriculture is an important part of our local and regional economy,” said BCFPB executive director Mark Schiavone. “Farmland easements help keep that economic engine viable.”
Smith, of the Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle, says that preserving open, natural areas are important in new housing developments, too. When developers conserve swaths of land along streams, it helps keep backyard fertilizers, lawn care products, and pet waste out of waterways. “Clean water is essential to our lives,” said Smith. “Conservation easements are an effective tool to protect drinking water forever.”