Watersheds: Protecting Our Vital Resource

This summer saw a severe tornado in Barnstead and Alton, destructive flooding in Lebanon and Acton, high river levels making boating and  fishing risky, elevated bacteria counts at our coastal beaches, along with record rains and a persistent cloud cover.

Farmers struggled to get their hay dry and their crops were hurt by disease.

Water districts incurred added costs to remove silt and sediment from surface supplies while facing up to a 15% drop in demand as customers reduced watering of lawns and gardens and hotels and restaurants experienced a slow season.

In addition, our water resources attracted the attention of the global economy as Poland Springs expressed interest in extracting and bottling water from the Branch Brook watershed in Wells. As a result of all these events the past season has brought weather and water to the forefront of people’s minds – tourists and residents alike.

People, particularly in the past 300 years, have assumed an increasing degree of control over landscape change. Nowhere has this been seen as dramatically as here in central New England. In 1630 the landscape was fully forested and “wild”. The streams and rivers flowed year round. By 1850 it had been completely cleared for farms and towns and disastrous floods and erosion were recorded. By 1960 it had reverted back to 85% forested.

Today the landscape is once again being transformed but this time the natural vegetation is giving way to parking lots, roads, roofs, and lawns. Our ability to influence water use, supply, quality, and dispersal through changing land use and a rising standard of living is exaggerated by both our growing population and our technology.

Water is the basis for all life, an integral part of our landscape, and provides for recreation and enjoyment. Water is also a commodity, carries away our waste, and can be destructive.

In the Trust’s year-long strategic planning process, water is emerging as a key resource to sustain our communities. Key because it is vital  to both our physical and economic health and because its quality is under threat and deteriorating. Key because the Trust recognizes how a natural landscape ensures clean water.

Our forests, fields, and wetlands purify rain water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at very little cost. This natural cleansing system not only maintains itself but repairs and replaces itself if given the opportunity.

Changes to our landscape as our communities grow and develop are affecting our water quality. Impervious surfaces such as pavement, roofs, and lawns cause rain to quickly run off, carrying pollutants such as oil, grease, pet waste, and fertilizers directly into streams and rivers rather than percolating through vegetation and soil and cleansing itself.

Each house, each driveway, each parking lot is insignificant but together they are adding up and having an effect on our coastal watersheds, such as the Salmon Falls, Ogunquit, Webhannet, Little and Great Works Rivers – all rivers identified by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as at risk from the impacts of development. Downstream, the water from our rivers is having an effect on our estuaries and our beaches. We need to recognize that with property  ownership and use come responsibilities.

Southern Maine runs on clean water. Just as there are limits to growth there are limits to landscape change that will ensure an abundance of water on which life depends.

Our rivers are only as clean as the waters that run into them. Watersheds degrade by insignificant increments, we need to join together in restoring and protecting them the same way. Small changes make a difference.

- Tin Smith

More on watersheds in Fall 2008 newsletter