Water Quality & Why Is It Important?
The mission of the Save The Tygart Watershed Association (STTWA) is to protect and improve the water quality within the Tygart Valley River watershed. You might ask why we care so deeply about healing our watershed, but the answer is simple. The quality of our water is the basic foundation for all of the traits we love about our river, such as recreation, drinking water, flood control, or even the beauty of the landscape. Without clean water most of these things wouldn’t be possible.
Pictured above is a healthy Tygart Valley River tributary known as home to native brook trout. Photo by member Devin Bokey
When we measure water quality, we start by looking at chemical, physical, and biological factors. Parameters such as conductivity and temperature are physical factors while dissolved oxygen, pH, and iron content are chemical factors. The Tygart Valley River is a very large river system with many different tributaries that spans eleven West Virginia counties. The Tygart Valley River flows out of a set of springs in Mace, Pocahontas Co. WV, and ends at its confluence with the Monongahela River in Fairmont, Marion Co. WV. Each tributary to the Tygart Valley River is different from the next and has a unique set of water parameters. The main stem of the Tygart’s water chemistry changes with each tributary that joins it which shows us how important it is to protect and monitor tributary streams.
Poor water quality has its most direct impact on aquatic wildlife, particularly fish, macroinvertebrates, and plants. Excess nutrients, sediment, chemicals, and other contaminants can reduce the diversity and abundance of organisms living in any given watershed. High levels of contamination can affect our ability, as humans, to drink, contact, or use this water for some of the things we historically have. Some historical impacts to the Tygart watershed have eliminated sensitive species, such as indicators like the native brook trout. Some of the largest historical impacts to the watershed came from the coal mining industry and the logging industry at the turn of the century. Many of these potentially damaging operation sites have been abandoned while some are still ongoing. Though it sounds like a done-deal when an operation closes, we still face many lasting impacts today that many people don’t consider. This is where the Save The Tygart Watershed Association (STTWA)’s mission was born. Our goal is to minimize or remediate ongoing dangers to the Tygart Valley River watershed.
The legacy of the mining industry has been particularly tough to conquer within the Tygart Valley River watershed. The Save The Tygart Watershed Association (STTWA) currently has three active project sites where we are combatting the damages directly related to mining operations. The most common threat to our streams with regard to mining is known as “AMD”, or acid mine drainage. AMD is the result of water passing over mine waste and causing a chemical reaction between sulfur compounds and oxygen. This reaction commonly creates a sludgy-orange residue called “yellow boy”. AMD not only introduces acidic
compounds to the stream, which lowers the pH often far below living organisms’ tolerance, as it also causes physical characteristic changes. Repairing the damages from contaminants is possible and STTWA is currently working on projects to treat AMD in the Roaring Creek, Little Sandy Creek and Beaver Creek tributaries of the Tygart.
Pictured above is an AMD site within the STTWA Roaring Creek project area. Photo courtesy of STTWA Organizer K. Flaherty
Repairing the damages from contaminants is possible. STTWA volunteer water quality monitors collect water quality data on these sites Water sampling protocols can vary from site to site, but the volunteers typically use various probes to record pH, dissolved oxygen (DO), temperature, conductivity (the ability of water to carry an electrical current) and turbidity (the measure of relative clarity of the water). Volunteers also capturing water in sterile bottles for lab analyses of total and dissolved metals, in some cases, monitors record stream flow rates with the use of equipment like a flow meter to help calculate the total amount of a pollutant flowing into the stream. Visual components of water sampling could include looking for color changes from things like iron, sulfur, or the presence of algae. We may ask questions like, “has the land use changed here?”, “have there been any industrial facilities here?”, “has this land been timbered?”, “how is the water being used here?” to help explain water quality issues detected. Historical information is needed for each specific source of contamination. This info is critical in understanding the full scope of what types of contamination are present, how many different contaminants, how concentrated the contaminants are, and what can be done to remove or minimize them. Once we understand the full scope of an individual issue, routine sampling is typically done over a certain time span to help us learn trends at that specific location. We can learn how contaminants move through the watershed, what locations are impacted, where the best site for remediation is, or even the best way to treat the location. Once a goal has been established for how to treat the stream, a treatment method is implemented and sampling typically continues. More often than not, this method takes years to re-establish an affected stream to a healthy state.