The devastating floods that occurred in West Virginia in June have caused everyone to take a look at our rivers. Are they ever going to be safe? Are people going to continue to move back to the rivers they both love and fear?
It is time for southern West Virginia to take a good look at our rivers and, hopefully, when all eyes are on the rivers we can find new ways to remain safe while utilizing our wonderful rivers in ways we have never done before.
As the founder and leader of the Coal River Group, I have studied the Coal Rivers and others other carefully. I live in a flood-prone home located in a flood zone and the repeated flooding I have experienced has forced me to re-evaluate how we in West Virginia live with our rivers.
I am also a commercial real estate developer and broker. The experience I have had during my many years in the business has shown me that the communities which are located along the banks of the state’s numerous streams and rivers have a unique opportunity to re-invent themselves.
That’s right. The rivers are going to flood, and the towns are going to continue to be destroyed by high water and declining business opportunities.
We need to put our eyes on the rivers and plan a new future. We should be reveling in the beauty and grandeur these rivers bring to our communities, yet most of our towns have turned their backs to the rivers bordering their town. Historically, the rivers were not considered so much of an asset but rather a part of the drainage for sewage, trash and industrial transportation.
The times have changed, and we need to change with them. Instead of rebuilding on flood plains with the river hidden behind the buildings, we should celebrate the river by building above the flood plains, and facing the beautiful river.
Accepting the flooding is part of river life. If the rivers are provided safe areas to flood and parks, parking and recreational facilities replace the former commercial zones, new communities would all be built with a view of the river as one of the major assets for encouraging new visitors and new business.
It is a simple, yet complicated, concept, but we must look at ways to not only protect our people and economies but to provide a sustainable commercial foundation for the future.
Eyes on the river should become a major consideration for communities that have been devastated by floods and older communities, who likewise face such potential. As we rebuild or build new structures, they should be required to be built away from the rivers’ flood plain but, likewise, should take advantage of the beauty and opportunity that an attractive river front recreational area provides for the future.
The growth of the recreational kayak business is being experienced in every community with a river. Kayaks are selling like hotcakes. Rentals and fishing supply businesses are being started and in most cases the paddlers simply need access to the rivers to explore and to utilize this inexpensive recreational vessel. Communities should recognize this new business growth and plan for the future.
Turning the community around so that it faces the rivers will eliminate potential future damages from the floods. At the same time, it will create new conservation areas which can be developed and utilized by people for exercise, recreation and new commercial river-based services.
After working and paddling for over a decade to develop the 88-mile Coal River Walhonde Water Trail, which flows through three counties. I have seen everyone’s backyards, and I have viewed the rear of commercial buildings in many small communities. Now, hundreds of new kayakers are following the trail, the kayakers are often from out-of-state or other parts of West Virginia. These tourists/visitors also are seeing the backs of homes and commercial buildings. Wouldn’t it be prudent to pursue a systematic change which turns the towns around by turning the town around to face the rivers?
The Coal River Group has found that people in nearly every town want more recreational opportunities. We have helped build and encouraged the construction of riverfront walking trails throughout the Big and Little Coal Rivers. Riverfront flood zones can be an advantage if they can provide a foundation for recreational amenities. When trails are built, people will come. The concept of putting eyes on the rivers is a good one. We hope everyone will take another look at how we redevelop our river fronts in the future.
Bill Currey is president of the Coal River Group.