Clean water

Children playing in tide pools, fishermen landing their catch, kayakers exploring the shoreline—a need for clean water connects all us of us who live and visit the coast. Good water quality protects public health, promotes industries, sustains environments, and supports fish and wildlife. Yet, as important as clean water is to life along the coast, it is by no means guaranteed. Expanding development, population growth, and other human activities are impacting our water resources, and a changing climate is compounding the challenge. Reserves help communities protect and improve water quality by conserving valuable estuarine ecosystems, tracking changes in water quality and habitats over time, testing cutting-edge approaches to reducing pollution, and providing guidance for decision making to ensure that clean water is available for future generations.

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Why it matters

Clean water underpins the wellbeing of coastal communities. When water quality is good, shellfish beds remain open to harvest, public health is more secure, fish populations become more sustainable, and tourism thrives. In the effort to protect water quality, coastal and estuarine habitats are our natural allies. Buffers of undeveloped lands protect sensitive water bodies from polluted runoff. Wetlands absorb stormwater runoff, filter out pollutants, return nutrients to the life cycle, and recharge groundwater. And in the water, oyster reefs remove nitrogen and enhance water clarity.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these habitats to function effectively on our behalf. Development is encroaching on the buffers that protect water resources, wetlands are fragmented and disappearing, and oyster reefs are a fraction of what they were due to overharvesting, disease, land use practices, and runoff-induced changes in water salinity. In the years to come, this loss promises to escalate as coastal storms become more frequent and severe and sea levels rise due to climate change.

If coastal communities are to reverse this trend and avoid significant future costs, they must invest in stormwater management and land use strategies that promote clean water and protect the habitats upon which clean water depends. To understand which approaches are appropriate for them, communities need information about the condition of local water resources, which strategies would be most effective in protecting them, and how to protect them over time.

How we help

Reserves build the capacity of coastal communities to make informed decisions about how to protect water quality through monitoring, innovative research and demonstration projects, and providing trainings for coastal professionals.

  • Taking the pulse: To protect clean water, coastal decision makers need accurate, timely, and relevant data about the condition of local water bodies and habitats and the impacts of human activity. In response, the reserve system launched the System-Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP) in 1995. Through SWMP, reserves track short-term variability and long-term changes in local estuarine ecosystems and watersheds. Each reserve’s SWMP program uses consistent protocols to track changes in water quality and biodiversity over time, identify ecosystem responses to stress, and understand the impacts of land use and management action. SWMP data and protocols provide a foundation for local research and resource management decisions, and collectively, all SWMP data feed into a unique national database of estuarine water quality, habitat, and land use parameters that is accessible to resource managers and scientists nationwide.
  • Building “green” infrastructure: The number one threat to water quality nationwide is nonpoint source pollution carried by stormwater runoff. As stormwater washes over roads, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces, it picks up trash, sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants and delivers them into streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and coastal waters. One approach to reducing runoff is the use of “green infrastructure” techniques that protect or mimic natural landscapes and the water cycle. Rather than the traditional “pipe and pond” approach to stormwater management, these techniques incorporate vegetation, soil, and good placement to encourage rainwater to soak into the ground, where it can be filtered and recharge groundwater. Reserves are advancing green infrastructure by supporting research to improve the performance of different techniques, evaluating their performance in local settings, supporting the development of relevant policy, and providing technical assistance through training and education.
  • Reducing nitrogen pollution: Whether it comes from fertilizers, septic systems, agriculture, pets, wildlife, or even the air, excessive nitrogen can trigger a series of events in coastal waters that leads to degrading habitats and sometimes “dead zones.” This process of “eutrophication” can reach a tipping point beyond which recovery is extremely difficult and expensive. To address this challenge, decision makers need science-based information about nitrogen sources and options for addressing them that are appropriate for their resources and priorities. Reserves help meet this need by supporting research and monitoring of nitrogen sources and by building the capacity for stakeholders to work collaboratively throughout a watershed to address this complex challenge.
  • Protecting freshwater for the future: As coastal populations grow and precipitation patterns change, communities are facing complex decisions about how to allocate and protect freshwater resources to support multiple needs—from drinking water and agriculture to ecosystems and tourism. In response, reserves are providing much-needed research and data about water quality and the impacts of land use on freshwater resources and coastal habitats. Reserves also bring stakeholders together to discuss challenges, weigh options, learn about best management practices, and develop flexible plans that can inform protection and use of these resources in the future.

What you can do

Interested in helping to protect clean water for your community? Here’s where you can start…

  • Learn more: Find out what your community is doing to protect clean water and what the local challenges are. Your local reserve is a great first stop for what’s happening and who’s behind it.
  • Get involved: Volunteer a few hours to support a reserve-based citizen science, training, or education program that supports clean water.
  • Give: Consider a contribution to your local reserve for water quality conservation, research, monitoring, or education activities.