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The Journey of Communicating the Benefits of Land Conservation and Watershed Protection


Bill Holman shares some of his insights on communicating complexity and uncertainty from a career committed to land conservation and watershed protection.
Bill Holman shares some of his insights on communicating complexity and uncertainty from a career committed to land conservation and watershed protection.

Land conservation and restoration have many moving parts and many uncertainties. Technical expertise is needed to understand aspects like the impacts of future growth, an expanding regulatory climate, and everchanging sources of revenue. It is sometimes easy to overlook the need for a communication approach that facilitates partnerships, energizes property owners, and earns the trust of the public.


Background

North Carolina is growing rapidly both up and out. 133,000 new folks became North Carolinians between July 2021 and July 2022 – a 1.3% increase. Only Texas and Florida gained more new citizens.


In addition to the construction cranes and higher density we see in urban areas, our cities and suburbs are sprawling. American Farmland Trust estimates that almost 1,200,000 acres of farm and forestland will be converted to development by 2040. Only Texas is projected to lose more farmland than North Carolina.


Benefits

Assured supplies of clean water enable the growth in our state. Clean water is also critical to public health and environmental quality.


Water utilities manage many risks. PFAS, forever chemicals and lead and copper in drinking water are current challenges. Aging infrastructure is an ongoing risk.


Rapid land use change with the cycles of more intense floods and droughts from climate change is another risk to both water and electric utilities that deserves attention and mitigation. Substantial land use change in urban areas is increasing stormwater runoff, reducing groundwater recharge and base flows, and delivering more sediment and nutrients into reservoirs and rivers. Land use change adds to the State’s water quantity and quality challenges.


Some water and electric utilities in the Carolinas are mitigating the risks to their water supplies by investing in land conservation and restoration. These programs are often called payment for watershed services or Water Funds.


Complexities Abound

Some key factors for land conservation and restoration include:

  1. Understanding by local elected officials that assured supplies of clean water are critical to public health and economic development

  2. Awareness by local elected officials that rapid land use change threatens water quality and quantity.

  3. A conservation plan developed by the water or electric utility in partnership with land trusts that models future land use change and prioritizes properties that provide the most water quality benefits.

  4. Ability to leverage local funds with state, federal, private, and other local funds.

  5. Clear communication to the public and utility ratepayers on the benefits on watershed protection.


Build On Past Successes

Local governments, water utilities, and their partners develop conservation and restoration plans to identify properties that will provide water quantity and quality benefits. Conserved properties can remain private working forests and farms or become public parks, greenways, and wildlife management areas.


It’s not a new idea. Over one hundred years ago many cities, including Asheville, Waynesville and Greenville, SC purchased and protected their water supply watersheds.


Falls Lake in the Upper Neuse River Basin and Jordan Lake in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin have been instrumental in Raleigh and Wake County’s growth. Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker launched Raleigh’s watershed protection program in 2005. Raleigh and its land trust and local government partners have conserved almost 11,000 acres since 2005. Conservation and restoration are guided by a land conservation plan that prioritizes properties that provide water quality and quantity benefits.


Falls Lake Watershed

As a steady funder with a plan Raleigh sets the conservation agenda for the Falls Lake watershed. Raleigh finances its investments in watershed protection by a fee of 15 cents/1000 gallons of water. Raleigh has been very successful in leveraging other public and private funds, including the NC Land & Water Fund. Durham also levies a watershed protection fee to help protect its Lake Michie and Little River reservoirs.


In 2022 the NC Environmental Management Commission approved the Interim Alternative Implementation Approach (IAIA) to provide credits for watershed investments towards reducing nutrient loading into Falls Lake.


Jordan Lake

The Jordan Lake One Water Initiative (JLOW) is evaluating one water strategies to provide benefits to both upstream and downstream communities in the Upper Cape Fear River Basin and to reduce nutrient and sediment loading in Jordan Lake and other reservoirs. Triangle Land Conservancy has developed a land conservation plan for the basin with stakeholder input. Cary has begun funding watershed protection in its water utility budget.


High Rock Lake

Stakeholders working to reduce nutrient loading into High Rock Lake on the Yadkin River are also exploring one water strategies.


Catawba-Wateree

The Catawba-Wateree Water Management Group (CWWMG) developed a Water Supply Master Plan in 2014 for Duke Energy and its 18 water utility members in NC & SC. CWWMG is planning for both land use and climate change as it updates its plan to be an Integrated Water Resources Plan that includes both water supply and water quality. CWWMG has created a source water protection committee and has begun providing financial assistance to land conservation projects that meet its criteria.


Maggie Valley

Maggie Valley Sanitary District (MVSD) in Haywood County depends upon two forested watersheds for its drinking water. Most of the land is privately owned. MVSD has partnered with the Conservation Fund to acquire and conserve properties to maintain its high-quality drinking water. NC Land and Water Fund, the US Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and private donors have provided most of the funding.



A Blueprint for the Future is Needed

NC Department of Environmental Quality’s development of a Flood Blueprint will enable water and stormwater utilities to identify projects that provide flood reduction as well as other benefits and hopefully allow utilities to tap new funding sources for their work.


Funding Is Needed

Land conservation and restoration funded by Utility Water Funds and matched with other public and private funds provide multiple public benefits, including risk reduction, source water protection, water purification, groundwater recharge, base flow regulation, flood reduction, sediment reduction, shade to moderate water temperatures and reduce algae growth, wildlife habitat and recreation.


Multiple Objectives Are Needed

Land conservation and restoration funded by downstream utilities helps ease concerns by upstream communities about the impact of watershed and nutrient management regulations.


Land conservation, nature-based stormwater solutions, floodplain and wetland restoration by upstream communities also helps ease concerns about the impacts of flooding and water pollution by downstream communities.


Environmental programs that utilize incentives and education in addition to regulation are much more effective than programs that solely rely on regulation.


Summary

Land conservation and restoration have many moving parts and many uncertainties. Technical expertise is needed to understand aspects like the impacts of future growth, an expanding regulatory climate, and everchanging sources of revenue. It is sometimes easy to overlook the need for a communication approach that facilitates partnerships, energizes property owners, and earns the trust of the public.


 

Bill Holman is an environmental advocate, environmental regulator, environmental funder, and environmental researcher. He has served as the NC State Director of The Conservation Fund, a national land conservation and economic development organization since January 2013. In this role, Bill helps The Conservation Fund and its partners obtain public and private funding for land conservation and sustainable economic development projects. His particular interest in in increasing public support and funding to protect & restore water quality & quantity in drinking water reservoirs.


Prior to The Conservation Fund, Bill was Director of State Policy at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions from January 2007 - December 2012 where he worked on state water allocation policy, water infrastructure financing, green infrastructure, planning for and adapting to climate change, and state energy policy.


Bill also served as NC Governor Jim Hunt's Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the NC Dept of Environment & Natural Resources, executive director of the $100 million NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and as a lobbyist for the Conservation Council of NC, NC Chapter of the Sierra Club, NC Chapter of the American Planning Association, NC Public Transportation Association, and the NC Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.


 

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