“Water is the most precious resource on the planet.” — Tomi Bergstrom
West Virginia’s watershed movement has been a good news story since its beginnings in the 1990s, but sometimes it takes more than a village to make things happen.
Just like our state, the movement has had its ups and downs, but its momentum and strength come from the partnerships formed by watershed residents and their neighbors in the business and industrial community, supported by local, state and federal government agencies.
Working together, mountains (of trash) have been moved, riparian lands restored and streams cleaned up.
It hasn’t been easy. First, observes Jennifer Pauer of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, you need a cause that unites people and a belief that you can bring about change. “There were big problems — water pollution, soil erosion, illegal dumping, poor land use practices. A lack of financial and technical resources led many citizens to feel discouraged and overwhelmed, even hopeless.”
But things started to happen during the administration of Gov. Gaston Caperton with passage in 1996 of legislation to create the West Virginia Stream Partners Program.
Soon, four state agencies were collaborating in an effort to work with communities to restore West Virginia’s water resources. The partner agencies identified in the legislation were the DEP, the state Division of Natural Resources, the state’s Soil Conservation Agency and the state Division of Forestry.
Pauer was part of this governmental team effort. Over the next 22 years, $1.2 million in grants was disbursed in support of watershed projects across the state. The total distributed annually is limited to $100,000.
The program has helped watershed groups get established, locate funding, access technical assistance and really “make things happen,” Pauer says.
For example, since 2010, the DEP has provided funding for 90 projects with volunteer involvement valued at greater than $10,000 each through its 319 Program. The local Coal River Group secured $126,000 funding for septic tank replacements and pumping to help prevent bacterial pollution from seeping into Coal River, and the Morris Creek Watershed Association received $72,000 for acid mine drainage remediation and sediment control.
The DEP now has four basin coordinators who dedicate many hours in support of watershed groups in the state’s Western, Potomac, Northern and Southern Basins.
According to Tomi Bergstrom, the Western Basin Coordinator, there are currently 36 active nonprofit watershed groups. The most active areas are the Western Basin, which includes Coal River, Kanawha River and Guyandotte River watersheds, and the Northern Basin.
The latter has 12 active groups including Friends of Blackwater, Friends of the Cheat, Friends of Deckers Creek and the Buckhannon River Watershed Association, to name a few.
Along the way several watershed groups have been involved in projects to remedy acid mine drainage problems in their streams, with the value of the work exceeding $2.3 million provided through additional clean water programs.
According to DEP’s Tim Craddock, the watershed group may not be the project manager, but they play a big role. In fact, often it’s the watershed groups that call attention to stream problems.
According to Pauer, the watershed movement reached a peak in 2011, when the Stream Partners Program received 34 grant applications. The number dropped over the next few years, and in 2018 there were 22 grant applications, which is closer to the current average. She observed that groups are more or less active depending on their motivating issues.
In the beginning, there were so many challenges facing so many streams that the movement really caught on. As progress was made and things improved, some lost their motivation and faded out. In some cases, burn-out was a problem.
Now, more environmental issues have arisen that weren’t as common several years ago — pipeline construction, toxic spills and increasing habitat loss, to name a few. New groups have formed, and some established groups are re-energized and engaged anew in protecting their watersheds.
The movement has had a ripple effect across the state. Success of one watershed group may inspire a neighboring group to organize. Since 2010, six new groups have formed: the Richard Evans Memorial Conservancy, Fourpole Creek Watershed Association (organized by three Marshall University graduate students), Friends of Hughes River Watershed Association, Friends of Mill Creek, Forks of Coal State Natural Area Foundation and Guyandotte River Water Trail Alliance.
Some of the larger groups such as Friends of the Cheat and Friends of Deckers Creek have paid staff, but most groups are all volunteers or have a grant-funded part-time staff person/intern.
According to Pauer, several state and federal programs support watershed groups.
The West Virginia Stream Partners Program is the one program created for the sole purpose of supporting watershed groups. According to Pauer, this program “allows volunteers to organize, prioritize, identify resources and become sustainable organizations that work with their communities in a multitude of ways ... beyond water quality.”
The state Division of Forestry has a CommuniTree Program in the Potomac Basin and the Mountaineer Treeways Program statewide to assist with tree planting.
The DEP provides funding through the Clean Water Act Section 319 and the Chesapeake Bay Program, assisted by DEP Basin Coordinators and the W.Va. Conservation Agency.
The Conservation Agency helps where watersheds are affected by agricultural runoff and, with state conservation districts, offers technical help on best management practices and the Landowner Stream Access Permit Program.
The DNR works with watershed groups on stream access, fish stocking and treatment of acid mine drainage using limestone sand.
The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service offers programs to help enhance wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, restore flood-damaged streams and improve water quality.
And, all the while, the results of the hard work and environmental improvement can be seen in quality of life — cleaner communities and streams, restored fish and wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.
One backyard example is the Davis Creek Watershed Association, which was organized in 1996. To date, the small, nonprofit group has cleaned up more than 295 tons of trash, collected nearly 2,700 tires, improved fish habitat in more than 2 miles of stream and created a passive acid mine drainage treatment site.
This was all accomplished with help from volunteers, the business community and state and city governments.
Bergstrom says, “One thing is certain, without the watershed groups acting as local environmental stewards and educators in their communities, the condition of our streams would not be as good as it is. The water and our people are two of most important resources in this wild and wonderful state.”
Teamwork is the key to success.