Our Shared Waters Means Working Together to Protect Our Drinking Water
No matter what its business is, every company has a set of non-negotiable priorities that guide decision-making. As a new employee with Pennsylvania American Water (PAW), I can clearly see that environmental leadership and maintaining the trust of our partners and stakeholders are at the top of our list. After 20 years as a regulator with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) working on issues affecting the quantity and quality of water in the Delaware River Basin, these priorities were a key factor in my decision to join PAW. Environmental protection is a responsibility that has always been at the core of my career.
I’m honored to work with dedicated professionals at PAW who embrace the same commitment. In my role as the Director of Water Quality and Environmental Compliance, one of my primary responsibilities is helping ensure that the water reaching our customers' taps meets all regulatory standards. It’s an immense task that requires the daily diligence of multiple staff members working as a team. For a look inside part of this effort, I turned to my colleague, Kristi English, Source Water Protection Lead for PAW in eastern Pennsylvania, for a short Q&A.
Marcus: Kristi, first could you define what “source water” means within the Delaware Basin?
Kristi: Yes! “Source water” includes the rivers, streams, and groundwater or aquifers that we rely on to provide the water that eventually reaches our customers. This ranges from the Delaware River itself to creeks, tributaries and various reservoirs. We treat water in a broad swath of Pennsylvania via both large surface treatment plants as well as several underground water systems.
Marcus: What are some of the challenges or threats that you manage to help protect sources of our drinking water?
Kristi: That really changes on a daily and even hourly basis, based on rainfall, specific events, and other factors. They include challenges as big as climate change, salinity, litter and development that might impact the entire watershed or specific issues like spills or upstream point source discharges.
Marcus: Kristi, you develop and implement Source Water Protection Plans (SWPP) for drinking water sources and systems. What are the elements of an SWPP?
Kristi: A Source Water Protection Plan or SWPP is a document that describes potential risks to water quality or quantity for a particular drinking water source or system. It also identifies a series of actions that can be taken to reduce the likelihood or impact of those risks. All PAW systems either have draft SWPPs or DEP-approved SWPPs for our systems throughout the entire state. A SWPP can help water systems understand potential threats and prioritize activities to address them. It is a valuable tool in the toolbox for protecting our customers.
In Pennsylvania, water utilities are not required to have an SWPP. Pennsylvania DEP recognizes the importance of SWPPs and has established a voluntary technical assistance program to help develop these plans. PAW also recognizes the importance of SWPPs and appreciates DEP’s guidance and voluntary program criteria to achieve and maintain approval status. We believe that it’s the right thing to do for our customers.
Marcus: What are some of the activities that could be taken to address and neutralize risks?
Kristi: First and foremost, any improvements made on the ground that result in water quality improvements. Projects like the establishment of riparian forest buffers, streambank stabilization projects, fencing and stream crossing additions on local farms or stormwater management projects in urbanized areas all can play a part. These projects often involve the county Conservation Districts or local watershed groups. These partnerships are so valuable. Finally, working with upstream partners to understand what materials are on site, along with opening lines of communication with them, in order to make decisions at the downstream treatment plants, are both very important.
Marcus: I know from our work together that you engage with numerous local organizations to help ensure the watersheds where our source waters begin are properly identified and protected so we can start with high quality water as we work to effectively treat it for our customers. Can you share with us the types of organizations you’re coordinating with on the ground and what you’re considering?
Kristi: To name a few… we work with groups like Delaware River Basin Commission, Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, Schuylkill Action Network, EPA Region 3, Penn State Extension - Master Watershed Stewards, and local stakeholders such as townships and municipalities. Together, we work year-round to update these plans and address water resources issues, land use changes, potential sources of contamination, water quality and availability. Our efforts on source water protection are aided greatly by our partnerships.
Marcus: What’s one way PAW supports its partners?
Kristi: We financially support the work of local organizations that improve, restore or protect the watersheds, surface water and groundwater supplies in our local communities, and we have grant opportunities open right now! And our employees are the best. You can often find them out in the community physically helping – whether it be through tree plantings, stream bank restoration projects, educating students with plant tours or in class lectures – anything to improve or educate. By supporting others that are also working to protect the small tributaries and larger streams within the Delaware River Basin, we can leverage a mighty network to move the needle.
Marcus: And finally, what should the public know and understand about the opportunity they can have in source water protection and sustainability?
Kristi: Everyone can do something to help. Pick up trash on hikes and in your own neighborhood to keep storm drains clear; reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, salts and other topical chemicals than can run off into waterways; and conserve water when you can. Those are just some simple, everyday actions.
Marcus: Thanks Kristi!
Many use the phrase “it takes a village” when describing the effort needed by all to achieve a common goal. In this case, I would argue it takes many villages to continue the work to protect the entire watershed, from the staff at DRBC who play such a critical role in quality and quantity decisions for water users; to the many groups working to protect their local streams, some of which we support with our grant program; to the PAW staff that volunteer to participate in community environmental protection efforts like tree plantings; to the sixth grader who won PAW’s annual “Save Our Watersheds” art contest.
Hopefully, all of you reading this blog will realize that your efforts to protect waters in the Delaware River Basin - small or large - are helping protect the drinking water for millions of people that rely on it every day.
And for more information on the grant program Kristi talked about, visit: https://www.amwater.com/paaw/news-community/environmental-grant-program
Marcus Kohl is the Director of Water Quality and Environmental Compliance for Pennsylvania American Water, a role he began in 2021. Kristi English is Pennsylvania American Water’s Source Water Protection Lead covering eastern Pennsylvania.