On October 3rd, a State of Emergency was declared for all 55 of West Virginia’s counties due to persistent drought conditions. The lack of water that communities and economies rely on for drinking, growing food, producing energy, and recreating was the result of a prolonged shortage of rain and excessively warm temperatures. The effect was evident in the Cheat, with streamflow measured along the mainstem hovering between 50-60 cfs, about five times lower than expected for this time of year. With low flow conditions, water quality in the Cheat worsens due to warmer temperatures, less dissolved oxygen, and more acid mine drainage, threatening the vitality of what has been declared a river reborn. The effect on water quality was stark, as seen at the mouth of Lick Run. Fed by a vast supply of groundwater, the portal on Lick Run was discharging a disproportionately large and endless amount of acid mine drainage to the river, overwhelming the Cheat’s ability to dilute it.
While it’s hard to attribute this instance of drought and low flow conditions experienced throughout West Virginia directly to climate change, prolonged periods with no rain and increases in drought are in line with what scientists understand about physics, chemistry, and the water cycle. At this point, even with global cooperation to stabilize and reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations that drive a warming planet, air temperatures are projected to increase by 5°F throughout the region over the next few decades. More likely, however, CO2 will continue to increase due to humanity’s continued reliance on fossil fuels for “inexpensive” energy. Under this business-as-usual trajectory, average air temperature will climb by as much as 10°F.
With a warmer climate, more water is evaporated from streams, soils, wetlands, and forests. Coupled with the projected decreases in rain during the late summer and early fall, the low flows experienced on the Cheat are likely the new norm. But with a warming climate also comes more frequent and intense rains that pose their own unique challenges. Heavy rain storms, like the ones we’ve experienced more frequently in recent years, are projected to increase, namely during winter and early spring, when forests are dormant, soils are saturated, and storage is small. With heavier rain comes more runoff, pollution, landslides, and flash floods, much like the ones experienced throughout the Cheat watershed this past spring.
Design specifications for water and ecosystem reclamation and restoration; roads, culverts, and bridges; flood protection; and drinking and wastewater treatment are all based on last century’s understanding of climate. Without taking steps to consider the effects of climate change, the tremendous effort to restore, preserve, and promote the Cheat and enhance all communities and economies dependent on it, may be in vain.
Dr. Nicolas Zegre is a whitewater kayaker, the Associate Professor of Forest Hydrology, Director of the WVU Mountain Hydrology Lab, and previous FOC Board Member.
Into the Canyon - Newsletter of Friends of the Cheat - Fall 2019
Board of Directors & Key Personnel
Amanda Pitzer, Executive Director; Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director; Madison Ball, Restoration Program Manager; Valorie Dixon, Bookkeeper; Beth Warnick, Media and Outreach Specialist; Lauren Greco, Cheat Fest Coordinator
Chair: Adam Webster, Vice Chair: Charlie Walbridge, Treasurer: Stratford Douglas, Secretary: Sarah Hinnant, Connie Miller, Ben Hogan, Rick Chaney, Zach Fowler, Michael Strager, Dani Martin, Rich Dennis, Lisa Maraffa
A fond farewell: Garrett Thompson
As an avid kayaker and trained raft guide, Garrett Thompson wasn’t new to the neighborhood when he joined the FOC team in 2013. Having a deep appreciation for the Cheat River, Garrett understood the importance of his challenging yet isolating role as one of FOC’s 3 original DEP Partnership Field Technicians. Throughout his tenure, he traveled over 86,000 miles across Preston and Mon County to maintain some of the area’s most challenging AMD treatment sites. He monitored and maintained system performance and water quality while collecting stories of wildlife and landowner encounters he would often re-enact with his animated mannerisms providing entertaining attention to detail.
As all FOC staff, he was involved in many of the different programs and projects and his contributions will leave a mark on FOC and the river community for years to come. Garrett had a direct hand in Adventure WV service projects including the 2018 improvements to the Allegheny Trail. His construction skills were expanded during the construction of the vault toilets at the Doug Ferris Outdoor Classroom. Garrett supported the Cheat Fest Downriver Race as volunteer team lead, and inspired changes to our events designed to enrich the participant’s experience. One of Garrett’s final efforts was the planting of over 150 trees around the Doug Ferris Outdoor Classroom. We will watch these trees grow, and hopefully bear fruit (pawpaws!) for years to come. But, we might never, ever empty the compost bin without him.
FOC was privileged to have Kingwood native Bill Armstrong as our summer intern. Studying Fisheries and Wildlife at WVU, Bill was a great fit for FOC and served as Program Restoration Manager Madison Ball’s right-hand man.
Bill was wonderful to work with. He helped FOC in a time of dire need--with sampling for two Watershed Based Plans and multiple active projects underway, it was great to have a reliable, knowledgeable, and dedicated Intern to assist in sampling, allowing us to collect more samples in less time. Some of our sites were less than appealing, thick with briars, buzzing hornets, and mucky ground - Bill never complained and always had a positive attitude. He will go far with this demeanor in the conservation realm. Preston County should be proud of this PCHS alumni! - Madison Ball
Bill dove headfirst into all sorts of other activities; He spent some days as a camp counselor at FOC’s summer Stream Camp, assisted with Adventure WV water-monitoring service days, stuffed membership and lapsed donor letters, and folded newsletters.
Bill’s positive attitude extended into the office, as many FOC staff lovingly harassed him extensively, a sign of endearment from our team. Intern Bill! Entuuuurn Billl!!
Despite all this, Bill has continued to volunteer for FOC post-internship.
Cha-cha-cha-changes – it is a colorful Fall here in Appalachia. Early in the season we didn’t expect to see much leaf color but the entire watershed has developed beautiful pockets of vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds. As a result of the dry conditions, we are seeing colors of another sort too. When the Cheat River’s flow is low, its dilution power is reduced, therefore we see the drastic impacts of acid mine drainage pollution at the river’s confluences with its most polluted tributaries – Lick Run, Morgan Run, and Greens Run. During normal and high flow conditions, these problems are not as evident, but when the water is low there is nowhere for the pollution to hide. As these highly acidic (pH 2.5-3.5) yet clear tributaries meet the circum-neutral waters of the Cheat River main stem, the waters mix and as the pH of the polluted water raises we see the iron and aluminum previously dissolved in solution appear in colorful plumes of yellow, lime green, and then orange (Iron) and white (Aluminum).
These scenes remind us here at FOC and across the region that Our Work’s Not Done. FOC recently completed Watershed Based Plans for Big Sandy Creek, North Fork of Greens Run, and Muddy Creek. These plans inventory and prioritize Abandoned Mine Land AMD remediation projects and set forth a restoration timeline – which extends into 2033!
This timeline reveals one reason the reauthorization of the collection of fees for the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund is so important. This fund, known as the AML Fund, was established under Title IV of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The fees collected and deposited into the federal AML Fund are derived from a per-ton fee assessed on each ton of coal mined by the active mining industry. Without Congressional action, the collection of these fees will cease on September 30, 2021.
West Virginia 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 abandoned mine hazards. At least 810,000 West Virginians live within one mile of abandoned mine lands. West Virginia’s estimated cleanup cost is $3.3 billion.
In Preston County alone, AML Fund projects have touched nearly every corner of the county. The AML Fund has supported public water projects to the tune of over $28,459,622* (*PCEDA-administered projects). Nonprofits like FOC use grant funds derived from the AML Fund and administered by the Office of Surface Mining to fund our AMD remediation projects. FOC has received over $1,766,500 from OSM’s Watershed Cooperative Agreement Program. If the AML Fund is not reauthorized, West Virginia watershed groups working on AMD restoration will lose this critical source of funding – which will put an end to AMD restoration work as we know it. How will FOC complete the 17 years of projects set forth in our Watershed Based Plans? How will WVDEP maintain successful AML restoration projects such as the Three Forks Creek in-stream dosing program and watershed-scale treatment in Muddy Creek? And what about emergencies like the underground mine fire still burning in Newburg?
We can’t stop now. As news broke this week of the coal giant Murray Energy filing for bankruptcy protection, West Virginians yearn for a “Just Transition” into a future where we can have a high quality of living in the place we call home. Reclamation of abandoned mine sites can add to the economy by creating jobs, increasing community pride, increasing property values, decreasing stress-related costs through stream-based recreation, restoring the health of the environment, and providing future sites for commercial or industrial endeavors. Despite the glaring need and benefits to its people, land, and water, and broad-based support from industry and conservation groups [Interstate Mining Compact Commission, National Association Abandoned Mine Land Programs (including Wyoming!), Trout Unlimited, and WV Highlands Conservancy to name a few] currently no members of the WV House Delegation have signed on to co-sponsor the reauthorization bill HR4248.
FOC is ramping up its advocacy for AML fund reauthorization. How can you help? Stay engaged with FOC through our e-mail list and social media where we will lay out actions ranging from Letters to the Editor to opportunities to join Amanda on a trip to DC!