MUB developing land management plan to protect source water

MORGANTOWN — The Morgantown Utility Board is implementing a land protection and management program in an effort to protect the source water that flows into its system.

During Monday’s regular meeting of the MUB board, Kendra Hatcher of Downstream Strategies presented a draft report on the program. Downstream’s efforts were funded through a $150,000 Healthy Watersheds Grant secured by MUB.

The program will focus on entering into voluntary agreements with land owners — first in the 7,680 acre Cobun Creek watershed, and then in the 11-county,  1.6 million acre Monongalia River watershed.

“The whole purpose is to protect raw water quality, so its focus will be on the watersheds, which are the physical areas where surface water — rain — ends up delivered to an area where we draw from,” MUB General Manager Tim Ball said.

Ball explained that the initial focus will be on the Cobun Creek watershed as it is the area that will feed into MUB’s new reservoir, a secondary water source that is currently a $50 million construction project. Additionally, Ball said the largely pristine nature of the area makes it a priority.

After that, the focus will expand to the expansive Monongalia River watershed.

“That will be a decades old process. We’ll be talking about what we can do there 30 or 40 years from now, but you’ve got to start someplace and we’re going to start on that tiny little Cobun Creek basin and perfect our methods and plans, and then expand out and tackle those 11 counties,” Ball said.

While direct land acquisition — either through purchase or donation — is one way MUB can ensure source water protections, the process will largely move forward through the voluntary participation of land owners.

Participation can be as complex as a legally binding conservation easement that is forever attached to the property deed and provides the land owner federal tax breaks, or as simple as a user agreement in which MUB and the land owner agree on certain restrictions.

Hatcher explained that there are a number of ways such a program can be funded. In MUB’s case, all funding would be voluntary as customer rate increases aren’t an option.

Funding options include individual and corporate donations, grant programs and a voluntary add-on to customer bills, meaning, for example, a customer could indicate they wanted to participate in source water protection and their bill could be rounded up to the nearest dollar.

MUB initially considered forming a 501c3 to oversee the program, but opted instead to handle it in-house, at least initially.

Ball said MUB is in the process of putting together information to be shared with land owners and the public and he anticipates the program will go live in the next six months or so.

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