Source Water Protection – Overview


Source water is untreated water from streams, rivers, lakes or underground aquifers that is used to provide public drinking water, as well as to supply
private wells used for human consumption. Some water treatment is usually necessary, so public utilities treat most of the drinking water before it enters the home. However, the cost of this treatment, as well as the risks to public health, can be reduced by protecting source water from contamination.1 The idea of preventing contamination from entering the source water before it is treated is known as ‘Source Water Protection’. The protection of our source water is not only important to maintain a clean supply for human consumption, but to ensure that our environment is healthy for all uses of water.

Key Advantages of SWP Include2:

  • Greater public health protection by ensuring higher quality raw water
  • Preventing contamination that treatment may not remove
  • Avoiding costs of contamination, including:
    • Reducing water treatment challenges and costs
    • Saving potential future costs associated with land and water contamination remediation
    • Saving monitoring, engineering, and legal expenses
    • Saving expenses related to finding and obtaining alternate water supplies
  • Greater likelihood of complying with existing and future drinking water regulations
  • Maintaining or improving source water quality for uses other than drinking
  • Protecting aesthetic water quality (prevention of taste, odor, and color problems
  • Meeting utility customer expectations, and improving or preventing a decline in customer/citizen perceptions and confidence
  • Providing for general environmental stewardship for current and future generations
  • Maintaining or improving utility bond ratings
  • Increasing funding opportunities
  • Increasing aesthetic beauty and/or economic value of residential and commercial properties through use of best management practices (BMPs) (e.g. artificial ponds or wetlands)
  • Improving communication and cooperation among stakeholders
  • Improving operations and reducing expenses for various industries and commercial establishments (e.g. nutrient management plans may reduce the need for fertilizer; sediment control BMPs can maintain soil resources)

Components of Source Water Protection

The six primary components of successful SWP programs and the requirements for meeting the standard are outlined below2:

    • 1. VISION – A formalized vision guides the development and implementation of a SWP program. The vision may be articulated in a mission statement or policy of the governing body of the utility and is a statement of the utility’s commitment to SWP.
    • 2. SOURCE WATER CHARACTERIZATION – In essence, this is the information collection and analysis phase of SWP programs. Characterization and assessment of the source water and the land or sub-surface area from which the source water is derived is essential for obtaining the understanding and knowledge needed to develop the goals and plans that will realize the SWP vision.
    • 3. PROGRAM GOALS – Goals and objectives need to be formulated to guide the SWP program and its specific elements. The goals should be targets developed in response to specific problem areas identified through the source water and SWP area characterization and risk assessment processes. They should address each of the drivers motivating the SWP program, including the SWP vision.Goals may address both current and potential future issues. The goals should be prioritized to reflect the concerns of greatest importance and ideally should specify temporal and qualitative and/or quantitative dimensions (e.g., specific timelines and measurable goals). Both internal and external stakeholders should be involved in the development of goals.
    • 4. ACTION PLAN – The action plan lays out a road map of activities to be conducted to achieve the desired watershed protection goals based on the vision, source water area characterization, and susceptibility analysis. The plan identifies required actions (regulations, agreements, practices, etc.) to mitigate existing and future threats to source water quality. It develops priorities and a timetable for implementation and identification of necessary resources, and a means for obtaining those resources (e.g. funding). These priorities may be based on the perceived risk from different contaminant sources, the available resources to implement actions, the likelihood of success of different actions, and the obstacles to success that exist for different contaminant sources and action plans.
    • 5. IMPLEMENTATION – Implementation of the action plan is the core of any SWP program. Planning without implementation does not provide results, and without this step no actual protection takes place. The development of a comprehensive and implementable pla, the use of an adaptive and iterative management approach to respond to unexpected challenges and barriers, and adherence to an established timeline are all integral to the success of implementing a SWP program.
    • 6. EVALUATION & REVISION – Administrative programs of any type require periodic (or continuous) evaluation and revision. A good SWP program will include provisions for reviewing and, if necessary, modifying the utility’s SWP vision, characterization, goals, action plan, and implementation elements. This should be done on a periodic basis and also in response to changes in the source water area, changes in contaminant sources, performance of implemented programs, and so forth. This step is intended to measure the accomplishment or completion of projects, programs, and activities identified in the action plan, and to identify any obstacles preventing further success.


1 EPA’s Source Water Protection Website
2 Modified from AWWA, Source Water Protection, Operational Guide to AWWA Standard G300
Image Credit: WATER.EPA.GOV

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