In 2014, a coal cleaning chemical leaked into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia, the drinking water supply for tens of thousands of people in the Kanawha Valley.

The chemical couldn’t easily be removed from the water and people in the valley spent more than week unable to drink, cook, or clean with their tap water.

After the spill, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition created the Safe Water WV initiative. The idea is simple: to strengthen a community’s connection to their drinking water and encourage them to work together to better protect it.

A couple years ago, Jefferson and Berkeley Counties decided to build off that initiative in a unique way – using the conservation of farmland and Civil War battlefields as a model for drinking water protection.

About two miles from the heart of Shepherdstown is the site of the bloodiest battle in West Virginia during the American Civil War. More than 600 Union and Confederate soldiers died in a two-day battle in September 1862.

This map shows details of the attacks and soldier divisions during the Battle of Shepherdstown. A marker for the cement mill can be seen along the Potomac River. Photo: Courtesy Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board

The Battle of Shepherdstown may have been small in comparison to other battles of the Civil War, but historians agree, the battle not only halted the Confederates’ northern invasion, but it also opened the door for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Since 2011, the site of the Battle of Shepherdstown has been a protected historic landmark. The battle site also happens to be at a unique location – along the Potomac River. The Potomac provides drinking water to Shepherdstown residents, and other nearby areas.

“The Landmarks Commission owns about a half-mile of the Potomac River frontage,” Martin Burke said.

Burke is the chairman of the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission – the group responsible for protecting the site of the Battle of Shepherdstown.

“Controlling the runoff, planting trees, all helps improve water quality.”

That’s why his group, along with the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board, the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board, and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition decided two years ago to work together. They started an initiative called the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative in the Eastern Panhandle.

“We formed the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative to bring together, for the very first time, water utilities, land conservation organizations, and watershed groups to take a collaborative approach to protecting drinking water using the conservation of land, and protecting land forever, to protect our drinking water sources,” Tanner Haid said.

Haid is the Eastern Panhandle Field Coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

The initiative focuses on using land conservation easements to protect drinking water. A conservation easement is a voluntary private or government contract with a landowner to protect land for ecological reasons – to improve water quality, maintain a historic site, or protect wildlife.

Haid said this approach makes drinking water protections stronger, because land conservation easements help to prevent potential contamination threats or development that could impact a source water intake.

In Jefferson County alone, there are more than 16,000 acres of battlefield land that have been identified, according to the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission. Only 800 acres of that is currently protected.

Liz Wheeler is the Director of the Jefferson County Farmland Protection Board. Her organization administers conservation easements to protect historic farmland and battlefields in Jefferson County.

“When we protect land, we’re not just protecting cropland. We’re protecting woodland, we’re protecting streams, we’re protecting historic resources, so it fits into what we do; to be able to contribute to source water protection,” Wheeler said.

But the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative in the Eastern Panhandle doesn’t come without its challenges. Finding enough money to protect the land can be the biggest challenge, but so can educating landowners about their options if they qualify for a conservation easement or historic status.

Haid said, in the coming year, he and his team hope to identify and prioritize areas of land in the Eastern Panhandle not currently protected that are close to drinking water areas.

“And then in particular, closest to the water intake or the utilities who draw up the water, because those are the areas most threatened by development and actions that we take on our land that has an impact on our water quality,” Haid said.

Jefferson and Berkeley Counties are among the most successful in the state for land conservation, according to West Virginia Rivers. Together, these counties have protected more than 10,000 acres of land.

West Virginia Rivers said, so far, they haven’t collected data on how water quality has improved through the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative in the Eastern Panhandle, but over the past two years, they have signed up 30 partner organizations interested in the project.

The group hopes this model – to protect water by conserving land – isn’t just for the Eastern Panhandle but could be used across the state.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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