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State of the Cheat River Watershed Fall 2019

Based in Kingwood, WV, Friends of the Cheat (FOC) is dedicated to restoring the Cheat River’s water quality, preserving its natural beauty, and promoting its many recreational opportunities.

For 25 years, FOC has worked to design and build treatment systems to address the acid mine drainage (AMD) issues across the Cheat River basin. Through these efforts, the Cheat River main stem, once completely devoid of life, is no longer considered impaired for pH, and aquatic communities have returned, including pollution-sensitive walleye. A recent fish study in Muddy Creek reported 10 species and a 150% increase in population since 2015.

Although the Cheat River is declared “reborn,” there is still more to be done. FOC recently finished restoration plans for three key Cheat River watersheds: Big Sandy Creek, Muddy Creek, and North Fork of Greens Run. These plans will improve the water quality of these streams, and will guide FOC’s AMD restoration efforts from now into 2033.

New in 2019 - FOC will be working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to expand restoration efforts in a new way - Riparian Restoration. The new partnership will begin with a large scale plan and result in over 90 acres of restored stream bank habitat. FOC will work with NRCS determine priority streams in the Cheat River watershed and offer riparian tree plantings to landowners and producers in need--contact madison@cheat.org if you think your streamside property is in need of riparian protection or to learn more about the program.

FOC, with project partners the Preston County Parks and Recreation Commission and Downstream Strategies, have secured technical assistance funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER program to position Preston County as a regional leader in the effort to create the area’s first county-wide trail plan. The plan will map all existing hiking and biking trails and identify sections that could further connected to create a network of trails.

RE-establishing the Cheat River as an Economic Asset through Trail Enhancement

In late 2018, FOC was awarded over $3 million dollars for our RE/CREATE project, which will fund the construction of the first 8 miles of the Cheat River rail-trail, funded by WV’s Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. The rail-trail construction will be enhanced by Trail Town initiatives in Preston County communities to support small business development around the region’s resurging outdoor recreation economy.

IN SUPPORT OF FULL FUNDING FOR THE LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION FUND

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was permanently reauthorized in February 2019. The legislation passed with bipartisan support in the House (363-62) and the Senate (92-8). LWCF is America’s most important conservation program, responsible for protecting parks, trails, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas at the federal, state and local level. This interactive map shows some of the WV public lands and parks funded by the LWCF. Preston County, WV, alone, has received $1.6 million dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

LWCF funds are not tax dollars - they have been specifically put aside from offshore oil and gas drilling royalties, intended as a reasonable conservation offset for energy development. On average, more than half of these funds have been diverted, only to vanish into the general revenue stream with no accountability. Inconsistent and unpredictable funding for LWCF continues to undermine rather than empower communities to address their long-term needs and maximize the impact of their conservation and recreation investments. Contact your congressional representative and tell them to support full funding of the LWCF.

TIMELINE: 25 YEARS OF FOC

1994-2019

Conservation Resource Alliance and Friends of the Cheat Staff at CRA's Biannual Gala in at Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, Michigan

Partnership Highlight

Conservation Resource Alliance

Friends of the Cheat staff recently returned from a trip north to visit our new friends at Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA) in Traverse City, Michigan. CRA has been working in the northwestern part of Michigan for over 50 years, focusing mostly on riparian work and dam removals. Their “River Care” program is comparable to FOC’s Cheat River Restoration program, and, in response to climate change studies, they have begun a “Wild Roots” initiative through which volunteers will plant thousands of native trees in their restored riparian areas.

During our visit, CRA staff took us on a whirlwind tour of their project sites. Similarly to how FOC works with landowners to build acid mine drainage treatment systems, CRA works with private landowners to remove and dewater dams - returning river systems to their natural states. FOC is starting a process that could end in the removal of the defunct Albright Power Station Cheat River dam, which is impeding the passage of walleye from Cheat Lake further upstream.

CRA’s riparian work was also of high interest to our staff. FOC recently secured over $230K in funding to begin a 5-year partnership with the NRCS to improve stream bank habitat in the Cheat River basin. In a study conducted in 1996, the WVDEP found over 55% of sample sites in the Cheat River Watershed had poor riparian health. Healthy riparian areas, or land next to streams, are crucial to healthy streams, and reduce impacts from flooding, filtering pollutants and keeping our banks stable.

CRA Restored Riparian Area with Participating Landowner

As FOC continues our new journey into dam removal and stream bank restoration, we’re excited to have CRA staff in our corner for advice and support. You can learn more about CRA and their great work at www.rivercare.org.

Our Work's Not Done

Without Congressional action, on September 30, 2021, the collection of fees authorized by Title IV of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) will end. These fees, deposited into the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund, are derived from a per-ton fee assessed on each ton of coal mined. WV has relied upon the “AML Fund” as a Primary source of money to clean up toxic mine water in our water supplies, restore land, extinguish mine fires, and eliminate other dangerous hazards.

Historically, FOC’s restoration work has also been funded in-part by these fees, through the Office of Surface Mining’s Watershed Cooperative Agreement Program. Throughout its existence, this program has provided FOC over $1,766,500 for AMD remediation projects, resulting in the collective restoration of the Cheat River main stem.

Despite our progress, with 342 Abandoned Mine Lands discharging pollution in the lower Cheat alone, Our Work’s Not Done, and FOC is leading the WV charge to advocate for extending fee collection at original rates through 2036. If fee collection is not reauthorized 2021, FOC’s AMD restoration work in the Cheat watershed will be radically reduced after 2023. Without AML funds purchasing lime and supplies for existing treatment systems, restoration efforts could be undone. Support FOC as we launch an advocacy campaign for reissue over the next 2 years.

Lick Run Portals

Sludge build-up at the mouth of Lick Run

Lick Run flows into the Cheat River south of Kingwood at WV-72 near Patriot Mining’s old coal prep site, now owned by Friends of the Cheat. The main source of pollution to Lick Run are several portals located in the headwaters.

In 2006, FOC purchased the 4.5 acre parcel with the idea that someday FOC would construct a treatment system there. But, because of the severity of the pollution and the lack of space between the portals and the stream, we now know a treatment system will likely have to be offsite, and more expensive than FOC can tackle through current grant avenues.

In Spring of 2017, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection completed a land reclamation project at the portals. However, this project also could not fully address the site’s complicated issues. Proper reclamation at Lick Run portals will take a multimillion dollar active treatment system - and a clever sludge management plan.

"Moonscape" Formation at Lick Run Portals

FOC is working to attract a larger audience to Lick Run in order to bring attention and resources to address this major pollution source. As part of the RE/CREATE project, a hiking spur from the Cheat River Rail-Trail will lead users uphill to a Lick Run AMD learning park, where they will see firsthand the otherworldly appearance of unabated pollution flowing out the mine portal and resulting in an iron-laden moonscape.

Mouth Of Luck Run at Low Water - photo by Joey Kimmet

Recently during a low water event, the effect of Lick Run on the main stem of the Cheat was unignorable. While Cheat main stem water levels can drop significantly after a couple of weeks without rain, deep mines such as Lick Run continue to release steady flows of acid and metal-rich waters that the low-water Cheat main stem cannot dilute, resulting in a dangerous mixing zone for aquatic life where to two meet. Lick Run is now the top polluter to the Cheat main stem, and one of the 4 “dirty sisters” - Pringle, Lick, Heather, and Morgan - that deposit heavy metals, such as iron and aluminum, into the river before the Rt. 7 bridge.

Rebirth has begun, but there’s more work to be done. The Cheat River is in the midst of a river renaissance, with thriving aquatic populations returning to its waters, but there are still some elephants in the room (aka - severely impaired streams discharging into the main stem). FOC will continue to look for new partners, new technologies, and the additional resources needed to meet the challenge of Lick Run portals head-on. - Graph designed by Donnie Riggs.

Muddy Creek & North Fork Fish Survey Results

FOC Restoration Program Manager, Madison Ball, holds a Creek Chub in Greens Run

In July, Friends of the Cheat conducted an electrofishing survey on North Fork Greens Run, near Kingwood, WV - with assistance from the Fisheries and Wildlife Resources Program, part of WVU’s Davis College.

FOC has worked hard to restore the North Fork, with two treatment sites located within this small watershed. FOC had heard of fish sightings in the North Fork, and was optimistic that some populations had returned or persisted in spite of the severe acid mine drainage impairment downstream. The main stem of Greens Run, as well as the South Fork and Middle Fork, are devoid of aquatic life.

Key: Greens Run (light green) - North Fork Greens Run Watershed (dark green) - Cheat River Watershed (light peach) - Cheat River (dark blue line)

Despite AMD impairments, fish were discovered and identified in the North Fork of Greens Run. Creek chub were found in a variety of age classes, including this spring’s hatch, suggesting these fish are healthy enough to reproduce and the bug populations are plentiful enough to support them.

The North Fork is ecologically separated from the mainstem of Greens Run by an “acid barrier.” With pH consistently 3.5 and lower in the mainstem, fish are contained in the moderate waters of the North Fork, isolated from populations in the Cheat.

Other species were also discovered, such as a young green sunfish and spotted bass, potentially coming from nearby private fish ponds. Overall, this is great news for FOC, and is evidence that we are coming closer to restoring this impacted stream. After tackling two remaining major AMD sources to North Fork Greens, FOC is confident we will continue to see improvements in water quality, and in turn bug and fish populations. We have high hopes that North Fork Greens could be restored to the brook trout fishery it likely was before legacy coal mining occurred.

In our 2018 State of the Watershed, FOC showcased a long-awaited achievement: circumneutral pH at the mouth of Muddy Creek. This year, we were able to see the fruits of this labor. Over 150 fish across 10 species were found in a permitted sampling effort early this fall. By comparison, 0 fish were found in 2015. There is a still a long way to go in the full restoration of Muddy Creek, but this is certainly a critical milestone and vast accomplishment.

Bacteria Program Update

Since 2017, FOC has been monitoring for harmful bacteria at popular river access points along the Cheat River. Results are posted biweekly May - September and monthly October - April. Results from bacteria monitoring can be found at https://www.theswimguide.org/affiliates/friends-of-the-cheat/

FOC’s Bacteria Program testing results confirm a serious sewage issue downstream of Rowlesburg Park, and suggests that users continue to avoid the Rowlesburg Park - Lower access site. Due to failing and outdated infrastructure, Rowlesburg’s overwhelmed treatment system discharges partially treated water into the Cheat River during heavy rains, resulting in dangerous levels of E.coli and other bacteria for recreation such as boating and swimming.

However, there is good news in regards to this crappy issue. The Thrasher Group Inc. and PCEDA are working together with Rowlesburg town officials to get a scope, budget, and financial update to parties to assist with procuring funding for a system overhaul. System upgrades are also in the works for the town of Albright, and the city of Kingwood. FOC supports this improvement to water treatment and will provide support as needed.

Snorkeling in Horseshoe Run - Photo by Adam Webster

FOC Snorkel Program

FOC has a new program geared to get Cheat River enthusiasts under the water! The FOC Snorkel program introduces participants to the diverse world beneath the Cheat River and many of its tributaries through guided snorkeling workshops. Attendees gain a whole new appreciation for the river as they learn about the Cheat’s unique river ecology and identify native fish and macro benthics.

In 2018, FOC partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to offer a snorkeling workshop in Horseshoe Run, a coldwater stream that meets the Cheat main stem between Holly Meadows and St. George on the Cheat River Water Trail. Participants (and FOC staff) were hooked, as they swam with smallmouth bass and picked up mayfly larva from under rocks. In early 2019, FOC secured funds to begin our own program - and design an educational poster to further showcase the Cheat watershed’s biodiversity.

FOC will host multiple public snorkeling workshops each summer. Groups interested in booking a private event can contact Restoration Project Manager, Madison Ball, at madison@cheat.org.

FOC Staff 2019

FOC Staff

Amanda Pitzer, Executive Director (2010), Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director (2013), Madison Ball, Restoration Program Manager (2018), Garrett Thompson, Recreation & Lands Manager (2013), Beth Warnick, Outreach & Media Specialist (2015), Valorie Dixon, Bookkeeper (2014)

Board of Directors

Adam Webster, Board Chair; Charlie Walbridge, Vice Chair; Stratford Douglas, Treasurer; Sarah Hinnant, Secretary; Connie Miller, Ben Hogan, Rick Chaney, Zach Fowler, Michael Strager, Dani Martin, Rich Dennis, Lisa Maraffa