When the Elk River was polluted with chemicals in January of 2014, and 300,000 people near Charleston were without water for weeks, the state legislature passed a law requiring all state municipalities assess and take responsibility for their drinking water sources and be sure that they are protected. A Zone of Critical Concern (ZCC) was established 1,000 feet on each side of all rivers and 500 feet on each side of all tributary creeks.
The thing is, West Virginia’s waterways are in trouble. More than 40 percent of West Virginia’s rivers are too polluted to pass simple water-quality safety thresholds. They are too polluted to be safely used for drinking water or recreation, or to support healthy aquatic life.
West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is charged with setting standards and enforcing the health and safety of our environment. Yet, that same state agency is compromised by state regulators and lawmakers, the very ones who passed the water protection law, who are seemingly capitulating to polluting extraction industries rather than enforcing laws to protect the environment.
Serving to fill this gap, a few private nonprofit organizations are stepping in to take over the job of weak West Virginia state agencies like DEP that have failed to protect the environment. One such organization is the West Virginia Land Trust (WVLT), whose focus is to protect land along streams, creeks, and rivers, which prevents runoff and pollution from entering our water systems, and to restrict development as part of the long-term solution to our state’s water problems, among other conservation efforts. Founded in 1995, the West Virginia Land Trust is the only statewide nonprofit 501(c)3 land trust dedicated to protecting West Virginia’s natural lands and scenic areas forever. Through voluntary conservation easements, WVLT has protected thousands of acres throughout West Virginia.
A few months ago, the WVLT approached the city of Lewisburg with a proposal to expand on the state’s criteria for source water protection by seeking property owners of lands alongside the Greenbrier River and its tributaries, who would be willing to donate conservation easements along the ZCC areas. Called the Greenbrier River Watershed Initiative, their aim is to determine whether this is a viable option to help improve water quality throughout the state. Funding for the three-year project is in part through a grant from the James F.B. Peyton Fund.
With that agreement approved by the city of Lewisburg, on Tuesday, July 7, Lands Program Manager Ashton Berdine, Senior Program Manager Terrell Ellis, and Conservation and Communications Coordinator Adam Webster met with several property owners at Lewisburg City Hall, many of whom had shown interest in the project from the outset.
Ellis discussed the research involved in the project. Lewisburg’s source waters, she said, cover 173 miles of river and streams and cross 15 community water systems. With 26 percent of the stream waterways impaired with fecal chloroform, WVLT determined that they needed to expand the state’s ZCC to include an additional 10 miles of upstream land to further explore the impact to the water system.
Their research started with looking at Greenbrier County’s tax map parcel data for natural attributes such as forested lands, soil quality, streams, karst, and proximity to lands already under conservation protection. These attributes were assessed as values.
They then looked at things described as threats to natural attributes, such as roads, developed lands, growth areas, agriculture development, logging, and contaminant sources. With that data, they established goal priorities, which included parcels greater than 25 acres, parcels situated between contaminates and streams, and all parcels over 25 acres located on the ZCC, representing 21,000 acres.
“I’m amazed at the data research the land trust has assembled for this project,” Mayor John Manchester said. “The water situation is tenuous for the 12,000 people in our area whose drinking water depends upon this protection,” he said, indirectly referring to the Anthony Creek diesel spill, which occurred last January, leaving customers without water for days in Lewisburg and Ronceverte.
Berdine stated that the land trust always works individually with each property to learn what the owner wants to preserve and to restrict. For example, he said, in protecting clean water, an easement might require that farm animals not be allowed to foul a stream on a landowner’s property, instead, he suggested, other land use management practices might be employed so that the stream is kept clear of pollutants from agriculture or cattle. If approved by the landowner, that restriction would stay in place forever. Property owners can apply for charitable deductions on their property taxes over a five year period.
The conservation easements are voluntary and are legally upheld to last forever. It just depends on what the property owners wants to leave as a legacy. Even 50 years later, land trust personnel will once a year visit the property to ensure that the current owner is still maintaining those restrictions placed on the land.
The threat is greatest, Berdine said, when land parcels are broken up. The land trust’s main thrust is to try and keep parcels intact. The focus is on working farms, forests, wildlife habitat, historical properties, and, increasingly, water quality. He encouraged raising awareness and support of land conservation and to educate our political leaders that land conservation is a top priority.
“If we don’t protect West Virginia’s special places, who will?”
Two more public meetings are scheduled: Monday, July 13 at the White Sulphur Springs library community room and Thursday, July 16 at the Frankford fire station. Both meetings are set for 7 p.m.