West Virginia Rivers Coalition staff scientist Autumn Crowe holds the state’s precious few wetlands in high regard because they do so much.
“Sometimes, wetlands don’t get the credit they deserve,” Crowe said.
Many dismiss as eyesores the areas where water saturates or covers soil, but they prevent flooding and water pollution.
“Wetlands provide a vital function in a watershed,” Crowe said.
These sites soak up water like a sponge, prevent stormwater sediment from infiltrating rivers and streams, and they provide a home for a high concentration of fish, wildlife and plants that are in short supply.
West Virginia environmental regulators estimate that the Mountain State, which is short on level land, has lost 80-90% of its wetlands.
Protecting the wetlands that are left is the objective of new wetland maps completed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Given that much of West Virginia’s wetlands have been lost, inventorying what remains will be a critical step to conserving them and the benefits they provide for all West Virginians,” Jonathan Phinney, branch chief of geospatial mapping and technical support at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an emailed statement.
The Fish and Wildlife Service National Wetlands Inventory-funded mapping project covers roughly 3 million acres across West Virginia, targeting some of the state’s most critical wetland habitats.
Fish and Wildlife’s National Wetlands Inventory dataset is a publicly available resource that details the abundance, characteristics and distribution of wetlands nationwide. Inventory data are available via the Wetlands Mapper web application.
“I know, just on my daily walk, it’s going to give me a better appreciation of the value of what’s around me,” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said of the mapping project. “Even though I think of [a wetland] as a flooded area around the river, it’s actually helping to reduce the flood damage to my home and the people who live around me.”
An online story map produced by the DEP and Fish and Wildlife Service that was released Wednesday notes that wetlands make up only 1% of West Virginia’s land surface but are critical habitats for nearly a quarter of its species and 44% of its rare plant species.
The agencies noted that determining the landscape functions of wetlands can help regulators place a more accurate value on the sites when industrial developers plan to affect them.
“No longer will a weed-filled wetland on a strip mine bench cost the same to impact as a 10,000-year-old peat bog,” DEP senior wetland scientist Elizabeth Byers said in the story map. “For the first time, we will be able to value the full range of wetland functions, including water quality benefits, flood control services, wildlife habitat and biodiversity. And by value, I mean dollar values.”
The Rivers Coalition scrutinizes maps for potential stream and wetland effects when preparing public comments on permits for industrial development projects.
“That’s kind of how we use wetland maps,” Crowe said. “If there are impacts, we want to make sure there’s proper mitigation in place. Obviously, we would prefer wetlands be protected, rather than filled in and developed.”
Crowe noted that the path of the planned Rivers Coalition-opposed 42-inch-diameter Mountain Valley Pipeline spanning 303 miles from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia includes wetlands. West Virginia and Virginia environmental regulators are reviewing the water permit requests submitted by the joint venture behind the pipeline project, whose targeted in-service date was pushed back earlier this month from the end of 2021 to the summer of 2022 because of regulatory and legal challenges.
“Just being able to have the mapping helps to know where wetlands are potentially impacted and how we can focus our resources on better protecting the high-quality wetlands,” Crowe said.