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Water: Source Water Protection

Local Protection

Source water protection means different things in different situations. This is appropriate because the threats to drinking water sources and the means to address those threats are site specific and most effectively implemented at the local level, with assistance from other government and private stakeholders.

This page identifies ways that local entities can plan for and implement source water protection. The information below contains links to technical guidance, funding, best management practice tools and resources.

Contingency Planning and Security

Although the goal of source water protection planning is to prevent contamination, sometimes accidents happen. Contingency planners should use the inventory of potential contamination sources to identify the most likely emergency scenarios and then identify alternative sources of water. Parties responsible for activities and facilities that could have an accidental release should be notified that they are within a source water protection area and given instructions on how to respond quickly or get assistance. Response techniques might need to be adapted for spills or accidents that occur within or adjacent to a drinking water protection area.

More information about assessing water system vulnerabilities and the actions that a drinking water system can take in response to a major event, such as a natural disaster or man-made emergency, can be found at EPA's Water Security Web site.

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Protection Planning

Communities can implement ground water protection through wellhead protection programs and surface water protection programs that use watershed management strategies. These programs involve assessing the problems in the protection area, identifying and prioritizing management measures for those problems, and then implementing the management measures.

Implementing a drinking water protection strategy can be as simple as mowing a railroad right-of-way near a drinking water well instead using herbicides, or far more complex. The town of Plaistow, New Hampshire is implementing an area-wide Source Water Protection Plan, prepared by its Source Water Protection Committee with the assistance of the Northeast Rural Water Association. Communities that rely on surface water sources often face challenges because much of the watershed is outside of their jurisdiction.

For all publications and resources see the publications and tools and technical assistance pages.

Using the assessment for protection

The first two steps in protecting source water are to identify the geographic areas that most need protection and to inventory the potential sources of contamination in those areas. State Assessment Programs have completed this kind of assessment work for almost every public water system. Information summarizing the results and the availability of the assessment report is provided to consumers every year in a consumer confidence report.

Whether communities use the state's assessment or expand it into a more detailed local assessment, they can use information gathered through the assessment process to create broader source water protection programs.

Local teams

Source water protection planning usually involves a team of interested stakeholders. Many programs and organizations have some responsibility for water quality and land use planning at the local level. These can range from a town's conservation commission or local county extension agency to state agencies, nonprofit organization, and federal agencies like the Forest Service. Some programs and organizations work specifically with small communities and water systems. Ideally, a team will always have at least one representative who represents the public water system. Getting local citizens involved in source water protection efforts heightens a sense of ownership in protecting the resource. The participation of citizen groups such as retired volunteers has proven very effective in drinking water protection activities.


This page provides information on a variety of financial assistance tools for funding source water protection.

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Management Measures

Communities can use a array of different source water protection methods to prevent contamination of their drinking water supplies.

Regulatory approaches

Some management options involve regulations and ordinances, such as prohibiting or restricting land uses that could release contaminants in critical source water areas.

  • Where existing activities are already regulated by states and communities and other government agencies, targeted inspections and training for those located in source water protection areas can be an effective strategy.
  • Land uses that pose a risk to source water can be controlled or moved from sensitive areas. Tools include subdivision and growth controls to reduce population density or zoning.
  • Land use prohibitions can be aimed at controlling activities that use dangerous substances or the materials themselves. Examples include prohibiting gas stations in sensitive areas, prohibiting septic systems with reservoir setback zones or placing specific restrictions on the application of pesticides, manure and sludge.
  • Another way to implement protection is through construction and operating standards. This can involve the use of constructed devices, operating and maintenance practices or product and waste disposal procedures.
  • Local authorities can require owners and operators of facilities that pose a potential risk to water supplies to obtain permits.


Land use / land acquisition

Purchased land or conservation easements can serve as a protection zone near the drinking water source. Public water systems are eligible for loans from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for this purpose. Local land trusts, community groups, or others should work cooperatively with local water suppliers to identifying properties that qualify for the funding or offer their expertise in negotiating acquisitions from willing sellers. Such partnerships can complement the ongoing work of organizations to preserve parts of a watershed or ground water area for other purposes.


Public education can increase awareness of threats to sources, encourage voluntary source water protection and build support for regulatory initiatives. The first step in a public education effort is to notify businesses and households that they are in a source water protection area.

Drinking water suppliers are required to provide annual reports, called consumer confidence reports, that provide information about source water, including a summary of the results of the assessment and information on how to obtain a copy. These reports can also be used as a vehicle to inform consumers about protection efforts planned or under way and enlist their support.

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Best Management Practices

Many of the available management measures are known as best management practices (BMPs). Source water best management practices are standard operating procedures that can reduce the threats that activities at homes, businesses, farms, and industries can pose to water supplies.

Structural best management practices

Structural BMPs are man-made systems or devices designed to prevent contamination. They can be imposed by regulations or ordinances or adopted voluntarily. Examples include constructed wetlands and vegetated buffer strips along shorelines.

Good housekeeping practices

Homeowners and business owners can help to protect drinking water sources as part of their normal activities:

  • Equipment operation and maintenance
  • Product storage, use and handling
  • Waste storage and disposal

These practices can be imposed by regulation (such as maintenance requirements for septic systems). Education and outreach can also be effective. Many communities hold local events or distribute information that encourages citizens and businesses to protect drinking water sources by recycling used oil, limiting their use of pesticides or participating in watershed cleanup activities.

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Protection Measures for Potential Sources of Contamination

Point source pollution is a type of pollution that can be traced to a single source, such as pipes, wells or ditches. As authorized by the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States.

Pollution from point and nonpoint municipal and residential sources such as wastewater treatment plant and stormwater discharges and runoff from lawns, gardens and golf courses can contaminate drinking water sources. NPDES permits and best management practices are the main tools used for controlling municipal and residential sources of pollution.

Commercial and industrial sources

Storage tanks

Aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) are tanks or other containers that are above the ground, partially buried or in subterranean vaults. ASTs can include floating fuel systems.

Underground storage tanks (USTs) are tanks and any related underground piping that have at least 10 percent of their combined volume underground. Over 93 percent of USTs contain petroleum.

Residential and municipal sources

Septic systems

Septic systems are used to treat and dispose of sanitary waste; that is, wastewater from kitchens, clothes washing machines and bathrooms. When properly sited, designed, constructed and operated, septic systems pose a minimal threat to drinking water sources. On the other hand, improperly used or operated systems can be a significant source of ground water contamination. Note that large-capacity cesspools are not septic systems; they are Underground Injection Control shallow injection wells (Class V) and are regulated by permit.

Stormwater runoff

Stormwater discharges are generated by runoff from land and impervious areas such as paved streets, parking lots and building rooftops during rainfall and snow events. They often contain pollutants in quantities that could adversely affect water quality. Most stormwater discharges are considered point sources and require coverage by a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The primary method to control stormwater discharges is the use of best management practices.

Agricultural and rural sources

Nonpoint source pollution comes from many diffuse sources and is caused by rainfall or snowmelt water moving over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even underground sources of drinking water.

Runoff contaminated with fertilizer and pesticides from agricultural activities and farming practices is a leading source of nonpoint source pollution and can have significant impacts on vulnerable aquifers. Voluntary programs and best management practices are the most effective tools for controlling agricultural and rural nonpoint source pollution.

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