BY EVA MAYS
West Virginia’s growing tourism and recreation industries benefit from clean water.
Kayaking or fishing in contaminated waters makes those experiences a lot less wonderful than they otherwise could be. However, clean watersheds are also critical to public health.
The quality of a local drinking water supply is often a predictor of quality of life in general. Morgantown residents, especially those who don’t care for water sports, should remember that close to 89% of the city’s drinking water comes from the Monongahela River.
The West Virginia Rivers Coalition, an advocacy group based in Charleston, exists to conserve and restore the state’s exceptional waterways. “We’re a voice for the health of our rivers and streams, making sure they are available for all to enjoy, for all of their uses,” said Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the organization.
The coalition formed in 1990 when individuals from the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and the American Whitewater Affiliation held a meeting to discuss their common goal of saving the rivers and streams that they all enjoyed.
“After 32 years of existence, that mission has not changed,” Rosser said.
The mission is not an easy one. Besides the usual pollutants of industrial chemicals and farm waste, West Virginia must also contend with the degradation of water quality that is associated with coal mining and fracking.
As the “voice of the rivers,” the coalition advocates for clean water at the federal and the state levels. At the latest state legislative session, which concluded in March, members of the group confronted the so-called Tank Bill that would have exempted certain oil and gas tanks from regulation under the Above-Ground Storage Tank Act that was established in response to the water crisis in Charleston in 2014.
“That regulatory program has been chipped away at, year after year since it was established,” said Rosser. “What was most concerning is that this exemption would have applied to tanks that are in the ‘zones of critical concern’ that are directly upstream from clean water intake for city water supplies. If a chemical storage tank were to fail and leak as it did in Charleston, it would contaminate the drinking water supply.”
Thanks in part to the advocacy of the coalition, the bill did not pass. “It was a relief,” Rosser added.
The coalition also works to educate people on how decisions are made in the state capitol and in Washington D.C. Rosser recommends signing up to receive weekly water policy updates at the group’s website, wvrivers.org.
There is a wealth of educational resources available for perusal on the website as well as a link to make monetary donations and information on how to sign up to become a volunteer water quality monitor. Rosser stressed the importance of this program, noting that an illegal dump of a substance that recently impacted the water quality of Howard’s Creek near the Greenbrier River was detected and reported by a volunteer monitor.
“All of us are important watchdogs for our rivers and streams,” she said. “The coalition is here to provide technical support, to report incidents to the authorities and make sure there is an appropriate response.”
For those in and around Morgantown, Rosser recommended getting involved with local watershed work, such as the Friends of Decker’s Creek (https://deckerscreek.org/) or Friends of the Cheat (https://www.cheat.org/). “Those are great organizations and they have restoration and improvement projects that local folks can be a part of,” she said.
Another way individuals can help the coalition achieve its mission of safe, clean water is by calling or writing to elected officials at the local, state and federal levels about why water quality matters to citizens.
“It really makes a difference,” Rosser said. “We know this.”