Safe Water Jefferson Partners Launch Private Lands, Public Waters

Over the past year, a group of land trusts, water utilities, watershed groups, and community leaders have met to create a plan based on a big idea: Protect water by protecting land. A project of the WV Rivers’ Safe Water for West Virginia program, this growing partnership has launched a 5-year action plan to conserve land in critical watersheds that serve as the water supplies for Jefferson County’s three municipal water utilities.  They’ve named the project Private Lands, Public Waters.

Land trusts in the two counties have been among the most successful in the state. Their main tool is the conservation easement, where landowners donate or sell a portion of development rights to keep their land available for farming or open space forever.

The Farmland Protection Boards in the two counties have leveraged $34 million in investment with over $22 million in donated easement values to protect over 10,000 acres. The Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission has conserved Civil War sites along the Potomac River, the drinking water source for 6 million people. The Land Trust of the Eastern Panhandle has a special focus on water, like a recent 30-acre easement on Opequon Creek — which enters the Potomac just above Shepherdstown’s water intake.

The initiative also is designed to help West Virginia meet its goals in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The plan includes:

Public Awareness: Raising awareness among the public and policy makers about the link between protected lands and clean water;

Collaboration: Cooperating to develop and implement conservation strategies, share information, and seek public and private funding for easements and the costs associated with them;

Policy: Seeking policies that build local capacity to conserve land that protects drinking water and further the goals of source water protection plans.

As the project unfolds and generates momentum, the hope is that Private Lands, Public Waters can serve as a model for a powerful approach to protecting drinking water throughout West Virginia.

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