Potomac Headwaters By W. Neil Gillies
Several years ago I heard Chesapeake Bay scientist and historian Kent Mountford give a talk on the Chesapeake watershed. He mentioned that headwater streams gradually disappeared from a series of early colonial maps. It was one of those comments that didn’t cause much of a ripple when made, but my mind wouldn’t let it go. There were a number of potential causes, such as deforestation and other changes in land use – but this loss of perennial streams began very early in the game when the human population densities were low.
I began accumulating information on reasons why streams go dry and, conversely, changes that can make dry streams flow again. BLM scientist Ken Stabler (1985) reviewed the literature on increasing summer flow in small streams out West, citing a number of cases where a series of erosion control check dams and gabions were installed in gullies with ephemeral flow, and perennial flow unexpectedly developed over time. He even reported on a once dry desert gulch in Colorado that is now stocked with fish. Others have noted that returning beavers to headwater areas can result in a return of perennial flows to ephemeral streams (Clark, 1998). If returning beavers can restore flow, perhaps removing beavers might diminish flow. I realized that because the early colonial fur trade quickly decimated once abundant beaver populations, beavers might hold the key to the mystery of disappearing colonial era streams.
So why is this of more than academic interest? Basically because every watershed needs water. Concerns over both quantity and quality of our surface and ground water resources are widespread in the United States. In eastern West Virginia, the poultry industry and rapid development place a considerable burden on the region’s groundwater resources. Since flowing streams (surface flow) depend on groundwater, worries over lowering water tables has led to anecdotal concern in this area that "we are sucking the rivers dry." Overall, sufficient flow is an important component of a healthy river system, and adequate surface and groundwater supplies are a prerequisite for sustainable human communities and healthy wildlife habitat.
A combination of concern over our water resources and, yes, academic curiosity has led CI to begin a project named "Once There Were Beavers: A Stream Flow Restoration Project for the Potomac Headwaters." It is based on the evidence that beavers once played an important role in the hydrologic cycle in the East, a role that has been largely lost. No, we’re not planning to import beavers . . . but we are planning to build a series of small structures in two very small streams to see if we can increase stream flow during low flow conditions.
An environmental organization building structures in streams? When the environmental community is working so hard to remove stream barriers to fish migration and dams? These questions do present a challenge, but it turns out there has never been a better time to do this. The emerging science of natural stream restoration offers tools for building in-stream structures that will likely accomplish our purpose without inhibiting the movement of aquatic life. And, since beavers were once ubiquitous on small streams in the East, our project represents an ecologically guided attempt to partially restore the natural hydrologic functions, flow regimes and ground water levels that likely existed prior to the colonial era extermination of beavers.
Why not import beavers to do this for free? From the scientist’s viewpoint, if we build the structures we can construct a controlled experiment to better measure change and have greater confidence in the results. From the standpoint of the public, well, no one says it more succinctly than David Heishman of the Moorefield Examiner: "Beaver Dams = Dam Beavers" (2003). The simple truth is that beavers and people often do not get along very well.
Mr. Heishman wrote a newspaper editorial in response to news of our project, in which he offered some interesting comments and posed some worthwhile questions. He is in favor of water preservation projects that "store and conserve water while maintaining stream flows" and advocates dams and water collection systems to distribute water for public consumption. He also suggests that cost, maintenance, bureaucratic, and landowner issues related to numerous "little dams" make them an unattractive alternative to large structures.
Our project is designed to assess not only scientific results, but also to address the issues raised by Mr. Heishman. Cost of structures is an issue, and one of our goals is to produce a very low cost design for structures that require little maintenance. Experience in natural stream restoration methods indicates that this is an achievable goal. Cost analysis on related projects "out West" indicate that the cost per acre of water storage may be less than 1/100th the cost of water supply reservoirs (Clark, 1998). Also, rather than storing water in large surface pools, our project will store water primarily in valley floodplain sediments, so issues with condemning land for construction of dams are avoided. The water thus stored in the floodplain is slowly released through the ground back to the stream channel, and hopefully will be sufficient to maintain flow during low flow conditions – that is the primary question we are addressing in the first phase of this project. If the first phase is successful, we hope to conduct a longer-term, more broadly based study in which we assess the extent to which we can enhance recharge of the underlying aquifer.
We are fortunate to have a wealth of experience in the form of a Technical Advisory Committee to help make this project a success: Pam Edwards, US Forest Service; Ed Kesecker, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service; John Schmidt, US Fish and Wildlife Service; Jim Cummins, Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin; George Constantz, Canaan Valley Institute; Fred Stabler, US Bureau of Land Management; Danny Bennett, WV Department of Natural Resources; and Michael Sykes, WV Conservation Agency. We will also be recruiting an Evaluation Committee to decide whether to continue and expand the process or terminate it based upon cultural acceptability (esthetics, cost, hunting, fishing, and recreation), likely impact on water resources in general, and potential for mitigating the impacts of excessive groundwater use.
A wet fall and a long, cold winter have delayed important elements of our project, most critically our groundwater monitoring network. However, that is the nature of field studies. We are committed to making this a scientifically rigorous and truly transparent process; our website will provide a continuously updated look at our progress and results. For more, click here.
Many thanks to the private landowners who are allowing us to use their property for this project, which is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program.
Clark, B. 1998. New water development by Enhancing and Restoring Beaver Dam Complexes. Riparia Vol. 9 (2).
Heishman, D. 2003. "My Unbased Opinion." Moorefield Examiner. September 10, 2003
Stabler, K. 1985. Increasing summer flow in small streams through management of riparian areas and adjacent vegetation: a synthesis. North American Riparian Conference, Tuscon, AZ, April 16-18, 1985.
Sometimes, you never know where a bus trip will lead. Sixteen years ago, current Cacapon Institute Board member David Malakoff and his wife Amy Young decided to tag along when several groups dedicated to protecting the Cacapon River staged a bus tour along the waterway. Among the tour leaders was George Constantz, who with his wife Nancy Ailes had founded the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory (now the Institute) a few years before. "We clicked right away," David recalled recently. "George and I shared a lot of scientific interests, and we both were drawn to the Cacapon. Before I knew it, I was offering to volunteer."
"What's a watershed like?" "A bathtub!" called out an elementary school student, one of a number I caught waiting in line in the hallway of New Creek Elementary School. The wonder was not that this eager little boy had been able to recall our model of a watershed from an earlier meeting, rather, it was that we are encountering more and more students that have seen us before. Reaching students repeatedly, and providing increasingly sophisticated descriptions of watershed and water quality is exactly what we need to do if we are to help these future stewards become the best possible caretakers of the Potomac Headwaters.
We took a big step in the right direction last year when we gained funding that allowed us to more easily offer a menu of activities across grade levels. This year we are getting another boost via our Web-Based Learning Center.
This Learning Center makes use of a simple observation… crisscrossing the landscape, working with a class here and a class there, we would always see an array of computers lining a wall. Why not take advantage of them!? Face-to-face work will always be an important part of our program, but letting teachers and students access CI activities on the web will multiply our impact many times over.
The Learning Center will be a valuable supplement to CI’s educational programs. The Learning Center will:
The education program has not changed focus. Students will still be building critical-thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills within the framework of CI’s mission. They will still be wrestling with conservation issues that call for tradeoffs and issues touch on students’ values. We will still be enriching education but, hopefully, reaching far more students!
The Learning Center consists of an entranceway with a description of the program, its activities, and an invitation to participate. Next, visitors enter one of three virtual activity rooms catering to elementary, middle and high school students respectively. Each activity room includes links to learning activities, games, puzzles, and challenges, and supporting information.
Another aspect of the Learning Center will be online conferencing. Each semester we plan to host an electronic conference or contest related to watershed conservation or water quality. Students participating in these conferences will be required to communicate thoughtfully in the context of a moderated exchange with CI staff, teachers, conservation professionals, and fellow students. The online conferences will allow students to analyze and argue opposing perspectives, propose solutions to problems, and review decisions all in conjunction with conservation professionals over a period of days rather than during one class period.
Over the next several years, The Learning Center will serve as a platform from which we can readily expand to provide educational enrichment activities on a larger scale. We also hope to capture the experience of providing web-based learning activities with a local flavor to teachers as a model for use in other regions of the country. Unanticipated problems certainly await, but for now our expectations are high!
The Learning Center project is funded through grants from the USEPA, the Canaan Valley Institute and, as always, member donations. If you enjoy construction sites, you can watch us build the Learning Center here. But you might want to wear a hard hat, we're still erecting the steel.
Claire Pitner, recent graduate from Mary Washington College in environmental science, has been helping us on member renewals, writing proposals and member services —like giving our website a new look and pushing to get this newsletter out. She also participated in a Watershed Stewardship Fair at East Hardy Middle School, and helped in the field and laboratory on a few very icy and cold days. She’ll be leaving us in June to work on a guest ranch in Wyoming. Ah, to be young again!
Thank you Claire . . . and yes, we would love to fill the position of Membership Coordinator on a "permanent" basis.
Interested in Hampshire County? If you are, then a new book developed in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Hampshire County may be of interest. Thanks to the efforts of the Hampshire 250 Committee and innumerable volunteers, Hampshire County, West Virginia, 1754-2004 was published this spring. It is a handsome hardbound book, 262 pages, with about 50 photographs– many never published before. With 94 subject chapters and about as many box topics (including one on Cacapon Institute), there should be something here for everyone.
Check www.hampshire250.org for an order form.
CI Director Neil Gillies is currently serving on two committees dealing with water quality issues of concern to West Virginia - the WV Nutrient Criteria Committee and the WV Potomac Tributary Strategy Stakeholder Committee.
In June 2002, the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board convened a study group to develop water quality standards for nutrients. Most of the various members of the Nutrient Criteria Committee (NCC), such as Cacapon Institute, have technical backgrounds in water quality science and issues, and come from the industrial, non profit and government sectors.
Our first task was to determine how we were going to proceed, which led to the development of a Nutrient Criteria Plan - a systematic approach to developing criteria. (Yes, this part of the process was every bit as bureaucratic as it sounds.) As the plan developed, it became clear that the original timeline for the process was much too short, and we saw our two-year commitment extend to, probably, six years.
After developing the work plan, one of the first challenges was to define what nutrient impairment looks like for each of the three designated uses, because nutrient problems are often indirect - meaning that they may cause something to happen that is undesirable but are often not inherently harmful themselves. After all, nutrients aren’t like the acid mine drainage that kills a stream. Excessive nutrients can cause heavy growth of algae but, in rivers, heavy growth of algae is fairly rare even where nutrient concentrations are high.
Nutrients, particularly phosphorus, can also be difficult to detect in water samples because they are quickly removed from the water column by microbes, plants, and minerals. They are still in the system, but can’t be measured by sampling the water. Because of this, an indirect way to measure nutrients is essential.
We are now working to develop nutrient criteria that will protect our State’s waters in three "designated use" categories: public water supply; propagation and maintenance of fish and other aquatic life; and water contact recreation. We have agreed on working definitions of impairment:
We are currently working on standards for lakes, to be followed by rivers. We thought lakes would be the easiest to deal with but in fact its taken over a year and we’re not done yet.
When Governor Wise signed on to the Chesapeake Bay Program Water Quality Initiative in June 2002, West Virginia at long last became a headwaters partner in the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP). This was a critical time for West Virginia to gain a voice in shaping CBP initiatives as the Bay Program has determined that the flow of nutrients and sediment into the Bay must be substantially reduced in order to restore the Bay’s ecosystem. As a part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and a headwaters partner in the CBP, West Virginia has pledged to play its part.
All of the Bay’s states and political jurisdictions have agreed to Cap Load Allocations (i.e.: maximum amounts for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment), to develop voluntary plans to reduce nutrient and sediment loads, and have accepted a deadline of April 2004 for submission of their plans. If current pollutant loads have not been reduced to the allocated levels by the year 2010, the EPA will begin a process that will place significant additional restrictions on pollution sources in Bay States, including headwaters states like West Virginia.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), West Virginia Conservation Agency, and West
Virginia Department of Agriculture chose a stakeholder approach to develop West Virginia’s implementation plan, known as the Potomac Tributary Strategy. Anyone with a "stake" in the outcome was invited to participate, and individuals representing counties, municipalities, industry, agriculture, developers, environmental organizations, and state government were recruited. CI’s Director Neil Gillies is a member of this group. Beginning in April 2003, the stakeholders have met monthly to develop the strategy.
In the short term, the stakeholder process can be a cumbersome way to proceed on politically difficult and highly technical issues. As one stakeholder memorably noted during a meeting "I didn’t sign any agreement." Hopefully, in the longer term, having the community at the table from the outset will help in shaping a workable approach to solving the Chesapeake Bay’s problem.
In January 2004, CI and the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute were awarded grants from the WVDEP to help bring the Potomac Tributary Strategy process to a successful conclusion. Specifically the two organizations are taking major roles in providing analytical support to the stakeholder group and in writing the supporting documentation. A draft document is now available for review at www.wvnet.org.
The technical, economic, and societal challenges associated with attaining the necessary reductions are huge. In order to achieve the 2010 Cap Loads, West Virginia needs to find a way to reduce nitrogen loads by 33%, phosphorus loads by 35%, and sediment by 6%. To put this into perspective, between 1985 and 2002 estimated nitrogen loads were reduced by 5% and phosphorus loads barely changed at all - despite the fact that major agricultural pollution reduction programs were implemented in our area during the 1990s. Understandably, the agricultural community is generally upset that all their efforts have produced such modest results. However, if you consider that agricultural nutrient sources, in the form of animal manure, increased during this same period by about 40%, the success of these programs in controlling agricultural pollution becomes evident.
West Virginia’s goal is to reduce nutrient and sediment loads while minimizing economic and social burdens. Reductions will be achieved through upgrades to point sources such as municipal and industrial water treatment facilities, and through implementation of best management practices (BMPs) for non-point pollution sources, including agricultural lands, forest lands and developed lands.
Note: all load estimates are based on projections from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Watershed Model.
Running two summer camps keeps CI staff busy!
Last summer not one, but two new summer camps introduced students to the science behind watersheds. "Stream Scholars" Summer Camp was funded last year by the USEPA, and seeks to improve the performance of motivated students in watershed-related study. The "Making Science Real" Summer Camp was run in partnership with the Hardy County Schools and funded by the WV Department of Education and designed to support science learning. Both camps were a wonderful experience for CI and, we’re delighted to announce, both will occur again this summer thanks to funding from The MARPAT Foundation (Stream Scholars) and the WVDOE (Making Science Real).
Both students and parents were unanimous in their praise for the camp. Since the end of camp last August, we have received claims of improved performance in science class, greater interest in watersheds and greater sensitivity to keeping things in balance.
The only complaint we heard about this camp was that it was too short. (Well, almost the only complaint—OK, so we’re not chefs!) So, by request of our campers, we’ve extended Stream Scholars to four days for this summer! Go here to get a Stream Scholars Summer Camp application. For more details and lots of good pictures, click here.
Making Science Real Summer Camp was created to support science learning for Hardy County 4th to 8th grade students. In order to help these students learn to excel, the camp used hands-on work that modeled science as a process for generating and answering questions. Students met over four weeks in July at East Hardy Early and Middle School and covered the scientific process, ecology, geology and stream biology.
During the first week, students played the part of West Virginia Division of Natural Resources biologists trying to determine the cause of a hypothetical fish kill. (This topic was chosen because of the recent fish kill in the South Branch. This topic remains very relevant today – see "Investigating Fish Kills".) Each day was spent testing a different hypothesis, carrying out the scientific method from beginning to end. Critical thinking was also an important component of each day’s activities, and students asked questions like: "did I really answer the question I thought I answered?"
Using their newfound knowledge of the scientific
process, students spent the following weeks working individually to develop
their own studies. Each of the next three weeks was dedicated to a specific
discipline: ecology, geology or stream biology. For example, ecology week began
with a discussion of key concepts, after which students were taken to the stream
to make some observations. From this point on, students worked individually or
in teams to form hypotheses, develop procedures, conduct studies, and settle on
conclusions. At the end of each week students not only presented their studies
to each other, but evaluated each other as well.
"Everyone must be aware that finding a single causative agent may not be possible, or at the very least will require some time," said DEP Division of Water and Waste Management Director Allyn Turner.
Reports of past fish kills and abnormalities in fish from the South Branch of the Potomac River continue to be investigated, state environmental and natural resources officials said today.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Agriculture and Division of Natural Resources have been concerned about fish health in the South Branch of the Potomac River since the first report of a fish kill in 2002.
According to Curtis Taylor, chief of the DNR's Wildlife Resources Section, anglers later reported catching fish with lesions on them, prompting additional monitoring and analysis.
Fish from the South Branch were collected by the DNR in June 2002 and sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Fishery Center in Lamar, Pa. The report from the Northeast Fishery Center indicated the presence of a common bacterium affecting the gills and skin of the fish, but the cause of death was not determined.
DEP Division of Water and Waste Management Director Allyn Turner said that results of water quality sampling conducted by the DEP and the Department of Agriculture have not yet been particularly helpful in understanding the source of the fish mortality. Fish collected in August 2002 were analyzed by the United States Geologic Survey Leetown Fish Health Center and the Auburn University Fish Health Laboratory. The Leetown Fish Health Center reported the presence of a common opportunistic bacterium, external parasites, and the relatively unhealthy appearance of internal organs. According to the Leetown Fish Health Center, the condition of the fish indicated that they may have experienced environmental stress, but there was not enough evidence to determine a specific cause. Auburn University analyzed the fish for black bass virus and reported it was not present.
Monitoring efforts continued in 2003 by a number of state and federal agencies. Water quality sampling was conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, West Virginia Department of Agriculture and DEP, fish collections were made by DNR, and fish tissue analyses were conducted by the Leetown Fish Health Center. Fish collections were made at seven sites on the South Branch and at one location each on the Lost, North, and Cacapon rivers.
An analysis of the monitoring results determined that, overall, fish populations were in good condition in all the streams sampled. Fish growth was also considered good in the analysis of smallmouth bass ranging in age from one to nine years.
The percentage of smallmouth bass showing external lesions collected from multiple sites along the four rivers ranged from zero to 57 percent.
Fish collected from the Lost and North rivers did not have lesions. The external lesions could be attributed to an inflammatory reaction to bacteria, viruses, parasites, or a reaction to degraded water quality conditions.
External parasites were found on some fish, as well as internal parasites on the organs of others. A number of smallmouth bass were found to have eggs in male testes, a condition called intersex (see box on page 10). Forty two percent of smallmouth bass males in the South Branch were found with this condition, but not every location had fish that exhibited the condition. Less than 5 percent of smallmouth bass from the Cacapon, Lost, or North rivers were found with the same condition.
State and federal agencies have agreed to continue monitoring efforts and studies are being proposed by several universities to augment existing evaluations. The DNR plans to collect fish at three different times this year within the South Branch and in other streams. The USGS Leetown Fish Health Center will continue to conduct fish health assessments and work with various university researchers to assess biological and chemical conditions within the fish. DEP and the Department of Agriculture will continue to monitor water quality and maintain a database for all information collected.
"Everyone must be aware that finding a single causative agent may not be possible, or at the very least will require some time," said Turner. "Until we have some more definitive results, this cooperative monitoring program on the South Branch remains a very high priority for all agencies involved."
To report a fish kill or fish with lesions from the South Branch
or Cacapon watersheds call (800) 642-3074.
What do gators in Florida, swordfish in the Mediterranean, and polar bears in the Arctic have in common with bass in our own South Branch? They all show signs of reproductive and developmental anomalies apparently caused by an excess of natural and synthetic hormones in our environment, as well as by a host of other organic chemicals, like PCBs and pesticides, that can mimic endogenous hormones. Try typing "intersex" and "fish" into a web search engine, then be prepared to spend days reading scholarly research addressing this problem as manifested around the world (Warning: typing "intersex" alone will give you something entirely different to look at!) Research is ongoing in many areas, including possible effects on human health. The issue has also made it into the lay literature, with clever titles like "A Fish Named Wayne/Wanda" (Kara LeBeau, Chronic Neuroimmune Diseases, www.anapsid.org/cnd/hormones/estrogen5.html) belying the seriousness of the problem.
The intersex condition (eggs in male testes) in fish, as observed in South Branch bass, has generally been linked with waste streams from sewage treatment plants and animal feeding operations. Part of the problem is that the hormones naturally excreted by living animals are centralized and highly concentrated in these wastes. Another part of the problem is that the use of artificial hormones (birth control pills, estrogen treatment, hormone feeding and implants to make animals grow more quickly), added to those naturally excreted, increase the total hormone load.
And just what is the problem with a few eggs in a male fish’s testes? The most obvious is reduced fertility. Studies have found that fish exhibiting the intersex condition have reduced sperm density, with fewer motile sperm having shortened activity. There are also indications that development of sperm in these fish may occur at the wrong time. It doesn’t do a lot of good to have sperm when the females aren’t spawning. Finally, some research has indicated that "feminization" of male fish may cause liver and kidney disfunction and anemia, leading to a decline in the health of the fish and leaving them more susceptible to disease. Perhaps like the lesions observed on bass in our rivers?
An excellent review of endocrine disrupting chemicals in our environment and their effects on fish, courtesy of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, can be found at: