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Stream Classification – What’s that?

Have you ever wondered if one stream is prioritized in a level of “importance” differently from another? Well, I sure have. That’s not a silly question, and it’s actually quite a difficult concept.

Pictured above: A trickling trout stream in West Virginia taken by editor Devin Bokey

What would make one stream more important than another? What would this importance mean? To some of us, maybe importance is about scenery, about how good the fishing is there, or maybe it’s even about the stream’s historic relevance in the state. Those of us here at Save The Tygart Watershed Association weigh this importance from a scientific perspective and perhaps it’s the most significant way to classify one stream against another… from an ecological standpoint. This is also how state agencies, conservation agencies, and lawmakers look at a stream’s importance.

The term, importance, from that ecological standpoint largely refers to the type of habitat that stream provides for wildlife, its recreational value, how the water is used, and how potential pollution would affect the given stream.

Pictured above: Less than ideal iron laden water with orange-stained rocks taken at Douglas Falls in WV by editor Devin Bokey. This is a direct outcome of AMD and a much less happy photo than above, should we categorize this stream with less importance?

I bet you didn’t know that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) utilizes a tiered system by which they classify our streams to create a regulatory guideline for how to assess fines, approve discharge permits, various land use or development permits, monitor water quality, grant protections, ease protections, and guide other day to day operations between the WVDEP and other organizations. Yep! It’s true, but how can you rank one stream against another? That’s a very complex question.

According to the WVDEP, “All waters are assigned to specific tiers depending upon the level of protection necessary to maintain high quality and/or existing uses. The higher the tier, the more stringent the requirements are for protection. West Virginia categorizes waters into the following tiers:”

  • Tier 1 - Maintains and protects existing uses of a water body and the water quality conditions necessary to support such uses. A waterbody that is listed as impaired on the states 303(d) list is considered a Tier 1 water as it pertains to the specific pollutant listed.

  • Tier 2 - Maintains and protects "high quality" waters - water bodies where the level of water quality exceeds levels necessary to support recreation and wildlife and the propagation and maintenance of fish and other aquatic life. Tier 2 is the default assignment for a waterbody not listed as impaired on the states 303(d) list.

  • Tier 3 - Maintains and protects water quality in outstanding national resource waters.

See link below for information on WVDEP water quality standards:

These three basic tiers are the guideline that answers our question about ranking our streams into groups. Did you happen to notice the word “uses” on the description of the tiers? It’s evident that the WVDEP will take wildlife and aquatic life into consideration, but the use of said water is a very interesting point as we interact with our streams on a daily basis in our everyday life whether we know it or not. You know that municipal tap water that you use to drink, cook, bathe, etc. originates from our West Virginia waterways, right? Even if we take it for granted, our streams greatly impact our day to day lives more than one might think! Sure, the water in our homes is one great example… but there are MANY more uses of our natural water.

Pictured Above: WVDEP "Designated Use Table" used as a guideline for determining the categorization of a given body of water. - Credit to WVDEP

Irrigation, livestock, wildlife uses, water transport, cooling water, power production, and general industrial use… goodness, that’s a lot of uses and one could even argue there are even more ways to use our water, and there sure are. This table provided by the WVDEP shows just the uses taken into consideration for how to rank a particular stream.

You’ll notice Category A specifies general public water used for treatment and human consumption. This is generally what we think of as a stream where municipal water will be drawn. Categories B1, B2, and B4 strongly notate waters with a consideration for aquatic life. Normally, the WVDEP will consult the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) to help assemble and monitor streams in this category. Category B1 is what is considered a warm water fishery. This notation is important as streams in this category were found to have species and ecology unique to a subset of life that can thrive in this setting. Category B2 are streams considered to be “trout waters” wherein you will find ecological factors and aquatic life that support critical cold-water species like trout, minnows, macroinvertebrates, etc. These streams are critical to protect and monitor, so their classification is held to the highest standard. Category B4 notates a wetland where the largest nutrient sinks are found. These areas are critical as they act as a natural balancing agent for our water’s chemistry and hold a unique set of plants and animals. Category C is also an interesting classification, in that, it lists areas where recreation is the lead driving factor for protection.

The tier-3 B2 "trout stream" list is very exclusive, as many documented trout streams have not made this list, or have since been removed. This is a list of very critical waterways, as groups like Save The Tygart Watershed Association understand the importance of having healthy headwater tributaries. Impacts to these streams will affect all waters below them, thus the "importance" factor we talked about earlier. Many groups and members of the angling community in West Virginia see threats to these streams or streams excluded from the list and understandably will raise questions to see them protected. Often times, people will share thoughts that streams might be excluded from this list to make it easier for industry to develop in that location and we end up in a "what is right" battle trying to make the right call. If you are concerned that a stream *should* be on the B2 list, it is always important to call your local WVDNR or WVDEP office as it is a cooperative effort to survey and assess these streams.

Links to WVDEP resources:

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