As a small water system operator, the journey of supplying safe, clean water to consumers begins at the source. Source water protection is best approached through collaboration and can be enhanced with the use of voluntary conservation practices by local agricultural professionals. This is especially the case in regions where nitrate and phosphorus runoff from agricultural operations threaten source water quality. Fortunately, the Source Water Collaborative (SWC) developed a simple six-step toolkit designed to facilitate collaboration between source water stakeholders (like you) and landowners through U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. Step 1: Understand how key USDA conservation programs can help protect and improve sources of drinking water In order to foster beneficial relationships for source water protection, it is important to understand what national, state, and local organizations can be of service to you. Two USDA sponsored organizations are highlighted in the toolkit: The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA). NRCS exists to provide technical and financial assistance to both landowners and operators for the enactment of voluntary conservation practices. FSA works to provide farm commodity, credit, conservation, disaster, loan, and price support programs. Having a working knowledge of specific programs, key contacts, and common vocabulary are vital first steps to take in your source water project. Step 2: Define what your source water program can offer Next you’ll need to understand NRCS and FSA programs and how they relate to specific operations and regulations in your state. This can be done quickly by browsing by location for NRCS state offices at nrcs.usda.gov and fsa.usda.gov . It’s important to note that the staff of these organizations are often the most aware of the regulatory structure of environmental programs, so be sure to make it known that you wish to work collaboratively. You should then focus on identifying what specific areas or projects collaboration with conservation practices could enhance. This is your opportunity to share valuable information such as source water data and GIS maps in order to identify potential water quality improvements. Step 3: Take action Step 3 of the collaborative toolkit focuses on making concrete moves to begin an action plan. It suggests you start by contacting your assistant state conservationist for programs. Be clear about your intentions to foster a partnership regarding source water concerns and NRCS programs that can be of assistance. Linked in the toolkit are initial talking points, a draft agenda for the first meeting, and key USDA documents to help you begin your first steps to action. Step 4: Find resources This is where you do your homework. Step 4 lists several links to very useful conservation and source water resources: A list of NRCS conservation programs, state drinking water programs, watershed projects, maps of nutrient loading, and much more. These resources will ensure you develop your project with the correct programs and people. Step 5: Coordinate with other partners This crucial step enables you to make sure that you are partnered with the people that will give your project the highest probability of success. The links listed in this step are for key partners who can bring data, technical capabilities, useful state and local perspectives, and other important stakeholders. These links include U.S. EPA regional source water protection contacts, state source water program contacts, state clean water programs, and other federal agencies that can make your efforts more productive. Step 6: Communicate your success & stay up-to-date Finally, share your source water protection experiences with SWC to facilitate improvements to the toolkit and promote the toolkit among water colleagues. Finding the right partners for voluntary, collaborative conservation practices is a progressive step for improved source water protection. By utilizing the resources and tips provided in the collaboration toolkit, you can put yourself in the best position to maximize your source water protection potential. Visit Source Water Collaborative for more information on any of your protection questions.