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The Upstream Battle to Protect Drinking Water in North Carolina

North Carolina’s Triangle region — comprised of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary and Garner — hosts rich forests that mark the transition between the state’s broad coastal plains and the biodiverse Appalachian Mountains. This region, known for its major research universities and dynamic economy, has one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, with Raleigh alone greeting a quarter of a million new residents since 2010. As a result, the area is facing more pressure to develop surrounding lands. But poorly planned development could affect the land’s ability to provide key services to urban residents, including a critical function that often gets overlooked: supplying and naturally filtering drinking water.

A unique partnership has emerged in North Carolina’s Triangle region that demonstrates how cities can better collaborate across jurisdictions to secure their water supply by protecting and improving “natural infrastructure,” particularly forests. Their success with this model can serve as an inspiration for other communities looking to protect their water resources.

The Challenges of Supplying Cities’ Water Needs

Clean, plentiful and affordable drinking water is one of the most essential services a city provides for its residents. Most cities heavily rely on forests to provide that service: an estimated 60% of all drinking water in the United States comes from forested watersheds. However, cities generally do not directly control the vast stretches of land that comprise their watersheds, which can stretch across thousands of acres under a mosaic of public and private landowners.

Without direct control over management decisions, cities can be at the mercy of upstream activities. The natural infrastructure like forests, wetlands and grasslands in these watersheds can face ecosystem degradation from unsustainable development, leading to downstream challenges like increased flooding, higher sedimentation and more pollution. To mitigate these challenges, cities can invest in upstream natural infrastructure through things like paying landowners to maintain riparian buffers or placing conservation easements on land. However, cities often cannot apply these tools outside their jurisdictions at the scale necessary to ensure a resilient water supply.

In addition, shrinking budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the funding landscape for watershed improvements. Coupled with the pre-pandemic $1 trillion shortfall in water infrastructure investments, many communities are wrestling with how to pay for these much-needed infrastructure investments.

Safeguarding Local Natural Lands in North Carolina

Understanding the need for natural infrastructure, particularly within the context of a growing population, a partnership in North Carolina is collaborating to acquire over 150 acres of forested land in the Upper Neuse watershed. This partnership includes government bodies (such as the City of Raleigh, Wake County and Raleigh’s water utility), local civil society (the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, The Conservation Fund and the Triangle Land Conservancy) and the private and philanthropic sector (the Caterpillar Foundation). The land, dozens of miles upstream from Raleigh and previously privately owned, includes more than 16,000 feet of river and stream front that are highly vulnerable to development.

This investment will protect the forest and create benefits for local communities, businesses and downstream city-dwellers who rely on the watershed for clean drinking water. Creating these protected buffers in drinking water systems will safeguard natural filtration services and reduce pollutant and sediment runoff, both of which will reduce costs for the local water utility. Upstream landowners also benefit from being paid a market rate for protecting and enhancing their natural assets.

In addition to water quality benefits, these natural lands provide important outdoor opportunities for communities to connect with nature, which can stimulate the local economy and boost public health. They also enhance flood control and provide important habitat for fish and wildlife.

Here's how each player contributes to protecting natural infrastructure:

1. Cities and utilities create the regulatory framework and provide funding through rate surcharges on water bills or other revenue-generating mechanisms, such as taxes and municipal bonds. In Raleigh, the average water customer pays an additional $0.57 per month for source water protection, which generates over $2 million per year. The funds raised from the additional charge are grant-awarded to a coalition of local land trusts to protect thousands of acres of crucial natural infrastructure in the watershed.

Since implementing the surcharge, Raleigh has raised $14 million that, when leveraged with a mix of municipal, state, federal and private dollars, are protecting over $92 million worth of property across 10,000 acres and 100 miles of stream. According to preliminary analysis by the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative, the result is roughly a $7 benefit for every dollar spent. Wake County, Durham and others also pursued dedicated watershed protection fees to support these efforts.

2. Local land trusts with extensive land management and community engagement expertise serve as responsible stewards of natural infrastructure. In the One Triangle region, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina The Conservation Fund and the Triangle Land Conservancy used their scientific expertise and credibility with local communities to acquire and manage land, protecting water supplies while creating recreational opportunities. WRI is advising with expertise from other watershed protection programs.

<p>Local land trusts are able to responsibly manage the Triangle region and protect water supplies. Photo by Sam Upchurch/The Conservation Fund</p>

Local land trusts are able to responsibly manage the Triangle region and protect water supplies. Photo by Sam Upchurch/The Conservation Fund

3. Private enterprise and philanthropy accelerated efforts to protect and enhance sustainable infrastructure for communities with additional funding and volunteer opportunities for local employees. The Caterpillar Foundation leveraged the grant funding provided by the utility with $250,000 and volunteer capacity to advance the pace and scale of watershed protection.

Partnering to Protect Drinking Water

This and other new partnerships with government, businesses and civil society can help leverage limited resources to protect residents’ water supply, offering a more holistic approach to water resource management. In this model, each partner taps into their core competencies to successfully protect drinking water sources. In fact, each partner could not sufficiently protect forests on their own. For example, conservation projects cannot succeed without funding, and funding cannot have any impact without effective on-the-ground projects. Collaboration allows different entities to combine their unique contributions into a whole that is greater and more effective than the sum of its parts, as illustrated with this partnership.

Despite an economic recession and a global pandemic, cross-cutting partnerships like this one can accelerate the pace and scale of infrastructure investments. Such investments can improve and increase the reliability of delivering essential services to communities. Utilities and municipalities can tap into low-cost financing to fund local land managers of natural infrastructure to build and ensure the long-term resiliency of basic services, from water flow regulation and flood control to water purification and water temperature regulation.

Such partnerships can also promote the use of natural infrastructure, much to the benefit of cities and their residents. On its own or in combination with traditional concrete-and-steel infrastructure, natural infrastructure can bring about a multitude of benefits for communities, such as increased recreational opportunities and improved public health. Natural infrastructure often also comes at a lower cost, and can even save cities money over the long term. In the United States, six cities saved between $500,000 to $6 billion in water treatment costs by investing in their nearby forests.

<p>Recreational and health opportunities are among the many benefits of natural infrastructure. Photo by the Conservation Trust of North Carolina</p>

Recreational and health opportunities are among the many benefits of natural infrastructure. Photo by the Conservation Trust of North Carolina

How Cities Can Replicate North Carolina’s Success

North Carolina’s Triangle region is showcasing a holistic, durable model to finance natural infrastructure investments on private lands through innovative partnerships. Inspired by the Triangle region’s success, the nearby Town of Cary recently announced a 20-year commitment for annual dedicated watershed protection fees to restore Jordan Lake, Cary’s primary drinking water reservoir.

Utilities around the country are promoting similar programs, such as Eugene Water and Electric Board’s Pure Water Partnership program in Oregon, the Sebago Clean Waters initiative outside of Portland, Maine and New York City’s Watershed Agricultural Council. With waves of additional cities committing to do more to protect their nearby forests through the Cities4Forests initiative, these models will provide a useful template for cities looking to meet their unique needs for source water protection.

Caterpillar, Inc. and Caterpillar Foundation provide financial support to WRI. This project is supported through WRI’s partnership with the Caterpillar Foundation. All content reflects the independent views of the authors.

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