Although your property may not have a stream or pond on it, all land is a part of a watershed and has some effect on the condition of waterways. Land and water are intricately connected by the natural water cycle.
First consider that every drop of water you get from the tap has been on a long journey that began when it fell to the ground. Once it hits the ground or an impermeable surface such as a rooftop or driveway, rainwater will go one of four places: back into the air (evaporation); into the ground; along the top of the ground downhill to the nearest waterway or pond; or into gutters, storm drains or culverts and then to a stormwater pond or waterway such as a stream or river.
Next, consider that water is an excellent solvent. It will pick up and carry both loose soil (sediment) and many chemicals such as the nitrogen and phosphorus compounds used in lawn and crop fertilizers. When surface water flows into creeks and streams it often carries these and many other pollutants such as bacteria from pet waste and motor oil from parking lots and driveways.
“So what has this to do with me?” you ask. The majority of families who get water piped into their homes are receiving water withdrawn from local reservoirs or rivers which is filtered and treated before being pumped into the distribution system to your home. This water came from the water draining from roofs, driveways and the land around your house. Right now you may be thinking either “Yuck – I am drinking water from someone’s lawn!” or “Wow – my water company is doing a great job cleaning up the water before it gets to me” and you would be correct in both cases. However, providing that cleaned-up-water gets more challenging and expensive as the water source becomes more and more polluted.
What can be done to keep sediment and chemicals out of the water flowing into the creeks and river and keep water in Loudoun County streams and the Potomac River cleaner?
Streamside buffers are one answer. Vegetated strips of land bordering waterways composed of trees, shrubs and grasses, with their miles of tiny roots hold soil in place, keep the ground permeable to water, and best of all, filter out pollutants of all kinds. These buffers work 24/7, need little maintenance, and have been shown to work very effectively at cleaning up water BEFORE it reaches streams and BEFORE it is taken out by water treatment plants. That service that buffers provide is inexpensive and long-lived, making buffers a great investment.
Stewardship is another answer. Stewardship of the land includes eliminating litter, reducing chemical and fertilizer use on lawns and gardens, reducing the amount of stormwater that runs off into storm drains, implementing more sustainable landscaping practices, and conserving water resources where possible. We can take these actions at home, work, and at school, and we can encourage better policies at the County level.
The condition of Loudoun streams and the Potomac River are the immediate results we see from water running off of the land here. However, as those pollutants travel downstream, fish and crabs in the Chesapeake Bay are also impacted due to increased amounts of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus coming in large part from suburban lawns, agricultural operations, and unfiltered runoff. The excess nutrients in the bay lead to areas called “dead zones” which are so low in oxygen that they can not support aquatic life. This not only has an affect on the Bay fisheries but also open ocean fish species who come to the Bay to feed, reproduce, or find shelter. Check out the Chesapeake Program website to learn more about the fish that use the Chesapeake Bay.
Will cleaner water in the streams keep water rates down for your family? When you pay your water bill you pay for the delivery of treated water to your home and the cost of the treatment. Dirtier water requires more time, chemicals, equipment and related costs to bring it up to water quality standards for drinking water. Therefore the cleaner the water reaching the treatment plant the less costly it is to treat and the lower the water rates that you pay.
So in a nutshell: Rain falls. Rain flows over the land and into storm drain pipes carrying pollutants, sediment, litter, excessive nutrients, etc. to streams. The storm drains eventually dump into streams. Other rain water flows over the land and directly to the stream where streamside buffers, if present, help clean up some of the pollution picked up. Streams may eventually flow to reservoirs and the Potomac River where water is intaken for treatment as drinking water. The Potomac then flows into the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary for ocean life and where seafood is harvested and sold in grocery stores.
The condition of local water affects your family, and in fact all of us here in Loudoun County. We all have a stake in ensuring clean water and we can all help keep it cleaner.