Testing the Waters

The West Virginia Watershed Assessment Project helps us identify healthy watersheds and focus protection efforts on them.

Click on the map to see the results of the Elk River watershed analysis.

Gil Willis knows what healthy streams are worth.

He and his wife, Mary, own the Elk River Inn and Restaurant in Pocahontas County in the midst of the Monongahela National Forest. Along with dining and hospitality, the business – which employs 20 year-round – offers mountain biking, hiking and fly fishing.

“Clean water is just critical, period, to our economy here,” Willis says. “The farmers, local residents and every angler. Everybody needs it.”

Willis is active in his local watershed, which has spent years compiling data about the condition of the Elk and its tributaries. That information has been invaluable, he says, in their work to protect the Elk.

"Clean river advocates like Willis are among those who might benefit from the West Virginia Watershed Assessment Pilot Project," says Keith Fisher, director of conservation and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

“It helps us identify watersheds that are healthy and focus protection efforts on them to make sure they remain healthy,” Fisher says. “But if you look and see a watershed marked in yellow or red, it’s in poor condition and you can dig deeper. Why? Maybe it is sediment. Maybe acid mine drainage.”

With the Elk, one of the first five streams studied, Fisher says the maps created by the project allow users see how the water quality deteriorate as it moves out of the protective forests in its headwaters and flows west toward Charleston.

Around 60 to 70 percent of West Virginia’s stream miles have pollution issues of one kind or another, Fisher says. And while he knew this, he said it has been shocking to see it carefully mapped out in the project. “Most of the watersheds we looked at are kind of in the mid-range. There are few that are in very poor condition, but very few in extremely good shape.”

The project is funded by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and originally covered five watersheds. That project was finished on time and under budget, Fisher says, and more streams have been added to the project.

Watershed Assessment Pilot Project

“State and federal agencies, non-profit organizations, watershed associations, counties, private citizens – basically anybody who wants to know where their limited conservation dollars might best be spent will benefit from this project,” says The Nature Conservancy’s Ruth Thornton, the project’s lead.

The pilot, completed this summer, defines protection and restoration priorities in five pilot watersheds in West Virginia: the Elk, Monongahela, Upper Guyandotte, Gauley, and Little Kanawha River watersheds.

The team drew on research from dozens of sources to evaluate the current condition, future threats, and conservation opportunities in the stream, wetland, and upland buffers for these watersheds, Thornton says. For the first time, this tool will make all that information accessible in one place.

“Users will be able to see important aspects of the landscape to help them make decisions on where in the watershed to work according to their respective resources, abilities, and mission,” she says. “It identifies areas worthy of protecting and maintaining, areas needing restoration and areas where future impacts would be a special concern.”