We all know that everyone needs safe drinking water, whether it comes from a local utility or a private well. We also know that farmers and ranchers do heroic work to put food on America’s tables, and that they endeavor to accomplish their work without harming the drinking water of neighboring communities.

But as a country, we need to explore new solutions to a pressing issue. Nutrient run-off threatens drinking water supplies throughout the United States. We must act with urgency to prevent events like the 2014 Lake Erie harmful algal bloom, which shut down water service to 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, for two days.

The time is right for a new era of voluntary collaboration and cooperation between the agricultural and water sectors. The coming reauthorization of the Farm Bill provides the perfect opportunity to encourage partnerships among everyone interested in productive farming practices and safe water.

We at the American Water Works Association, with 51,000 members dedicated to finding solutions to effectively manage water, are asking the U.S. Congress to emphasize source water protection in the farm bill’s conservation title. Many existing conservation measures address a host of environmental issues, but the direct connection between these practices and drinking water quality has not been made explicit in previous farm bills. We would like to see that change by:

  • Providing strong funding for conservation programs.
  • Adding a specific goal of protecting sources of drinking water as a priority for all Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation programs.
  • Encouraging NRCS state conservationists, State technical committees, and working groups to work with water utilities in identifying priority areas in each state
  • Increasing the NRCS cost-share for measures that provide considerable downstream water quality benefits
  • Dedicating 10% of conservation funding to protecting sources of drinking water through existing programs.

While many water utilities have developed monitoring, treatment, and response strategies to protect their source waters, ultimately, it’s critical that we reduce the nutrient loads that reach water system intakes.

Agricultural production often runs on thin margins, and farmers and ranchers who strongly desire to implement practices to protect source water often lack the resources to do so.  But there are already examples of how NRCS programs can help agricultural producers and utilities collaborate to get the job done.

In recent years, several water utilities have committed to working cooperatively with agriculture through programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). In Beaver Water District, Arkansas, over $8.5 million in combined federal and local funds is being applied to protect sources of drinking water, and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, over $4 million in combined federal and local funds are going to source water protection. And both projects are being done in cooperation with agriculture.

At AWWA, protecting sources of drinking water is part of what we call a Total Water Solutions approach to managing water, recognizing that water serves many important purposes.  Working in partnership with other stakeholders in water management, we are always looking for innovative ways to protect drinking water supplies while recognizing the interests of large and small businesses and the wider economy. 

Congress would do well to preserve and enhance funding for the conservation programs while increasing the focus on protecting sources of drinking water. We look forward to working closely with our friends in the agricultural community to encourage a Farm Bill that recognizes the critical nature of both agricultural production and safe and affordable water.

Established in 1881, the American Water Works Association is the largest nonprofit, scientific and educational association dedicated to managing and treating water, the world’s most important resource. With approximately 51,000 members, AWWA provides solutions to improve public health, protect the environment, strengthen the economy and enhance our quality of life.

About the Author: David LaFrance is the CEO of the American Water Works Association.