Protecting Water Sources

Where does your water come from? A lake? A river? An aquifer? Do you know? In our busy lives, it is someone else’s job to think about that, to make sure we have clean water that is safe to drink. (Though in recent history the catastrophe in Flint, MI has made a few people think twice about the theme – even to the point of paranoia for some.)

I work with institutions whose responsibility is making sure people have clean water to drink, but they often only focus on building and repairing water systems. Unfortunately, a lot of times they forget that protecting the source of water, is just as important. So, as water systems get built by an outside entity, capturing water from rivers, streams, or springs, the people in the community start developing the land nearby and above these sources, within the watershed, cutting down trees, building houses (and therefore bathrooms), cultivating crops, using agrochemicals, and raising cattle or pigs that contaminate the water, not realizing the impact it will have on the water source.

We have the good fortune to have an NGO in our community (IBC) that has expertise in watershed protection (among other cool topic areas like native communities, stream health and others), and is a member of our group GTIFAS. Thanks to IBC, a very exciting part of our project is to work closely with five communities to identify risks to their water source and recommend ways they can eliminate risks and protect their watershed in the future – while respecting land rights and the need to have income generation from their land.

This involves strategies like reforestation with native plants, creating zones of protection, and creating zones for low-impact activities like raising bees or crops that use minimal agrochemicals.

Another important approach is a type of economic valuation of ecosystem services where, in this case, they the recommendation is to raise the water fee on the water bill to have some extra funds to help pay land owners for the environmental services the forests on their land provide in keeping the water clean – giving incentives to either not cut down forest, or to reforest areas near water sources.

While there are a lot of general recommendations we can give to each community, we wanted to make sure that we knew the situation on the ground and could give very concrete recommendations to each community, like which tree species could they plant and where, and what current activities are a risk to their water system. So, we planned to go visit the source of water for each community and to inspect the surrounding areas for risks.

It’s good to have friends that are experts in watersheds!

Just when I was heading to the office to do some planning for our first site visit, I saw two of my good friends, who work for the non-profit, taking a snack break. Since I have (finally) learned to slow down and take advantage of these breaks to converse with friends and co-workers, I followed them instead of diving right into my computer work. During the conversation, my friend pointed out that we should look at satellite images of the areas to help guide our inspection and give us an idea of what areas might have risks. What a brilliant idea, and I can’t believe I hadn’t talked to her sooner!

She helped me print out satellite images of each area, and showed me how to read them to have an idea of where land had been developed, where rivers might be, and how to show topography. It turned out to be a key tool in our analysis, in conjunction with using google maps on the phone to help track where we were during the inspections.

The next day, we headed out to climb to the water sources for three different water systems. Each time was a steep ascent through the high jungle hills, each taking between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the top. From there, we explored the surrounding areas, looking to identify the possible risks we saw from the satellite images, as well as any other risks we could identify on-the-ground.

Our tree expert from IBC

The day started out with good luck as we saw two wild monkeys – tiny rabbit-sized animals with a long tail – playing in the trees. My first experience ever seeing wild monkeys!

I know you can’t see them, but I swear there are two small monkeys in the tree across the highway.

Later we passed a tree that produces a cotton-like substance – my first time seeing cotton fall from a tree. Finally, it was the first time that plants stung me through my pants – who knew that plants could sting, and even through cloth?! I thought that only happened in Australia.

You can imagine that I was pretty hungry by lunch time, so I blame the low blood sugar for my slip of the tongue when I asked if anyone was “dying from the man” instead of dying of hunger (“alguien esta muriendo de hombre?”)!

Actually, I could write a whole blog entry on all my slips of the tongue in castellano… and maybe one day I will. Stay tuned…

Field Days

My favorite part of my job is definitely when I get to be out in the field (“campo”), inspecting or repairing water systems with the operators or the volunteer water committees… and yet I haven’t written much about that, so today I am taking some time to share some of the work we did last week.

An important part of maintaining a rural water system is cleaning and disinfecting it regularly so that sediments, microorganisms, and mold don’t build up inside. This can be a little complicated because it requires high concentrations of bleach in a confined space, that later have to be disposed of in a safe site (not a river or stream). So, you can see why training water system operators to properly clean the water system is an important job.

You may recall that we had a hands-on workshop with the system operators back in April, where we went to a water system and actually practiced the disinfection process. But since every system is a little different, and it takes a few times to change old habits, we are now doing one-on-one trainings with five different communities. Since we are working with a group of university students studying environmental engineering, we invited them to come learn and help with one of the systems.

It is quite a coordination process working with volunteer water committees because we have work within their schedules. That means we wait for the water committee to schedule their next meeting, we attend the meeting, we find out when they plan to do their next cleaning, and we ask if we can come oversee the process and help out. For me, that means a 30-minute bike ride (each way) through the beautiful green hills of Oxapampa to arrive at the community each time we need to coordinate, attend meetings, or and participate in activities. (Poor me!)

All the coordination paid off this week, and we had a great hands-on training, resulting in an improved process for cleaning and disinfection that will make it quicker for the operator and will protect the nearby river.

Another day during the week, 30 minutes on bicycle in the opposite direction, we did a water system inspection with the group of university students. After hiking up through one of the beautiful verdant hills for more than an hour, we arrived at the spring box where the water system collects water from a spring. We took measurements and discussed what was working well and what could be improved, and then descended, doing the same for each component of the water system.

Later in the week, we returned to the same system to train the university students in monitoring chlorine levels. We explained the key monitoring points in the distribution system, and we then went to each point to take measurements, (me in bicycle and them on their motorcycle.) Their homework was then to monitor the chlorine for a week, create a registry for the results, and to then train the operator to use the registry.


That same day, the operator had identified a leak in the system, so we took the opportunity to help him fix the leak, learn his procedure, and point out a few additional best practices for the future. The operators tend to be elected by the community, and often don’t have any water-system-specific training, but because they have often built their houses or worked on similar projects, they have a general idea and incredible ingenuity and can complete the basic functions, even if they aren’t aware of the best practices.



The field work is really my favorite part of the job, so I’m really happy to be in the field-work phase of our project – that means more time working side-by-side with water committees and operators, so they can be more effective at ensuring their communities have clean water.