The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 29, 2011

Report: New River tests high for pollutants

One of the oldest and most recreationally popular rivers on the planet could use a little help, a freshly released report says.

The waterways that flow into the New River routinely test high for various pollutants, including fecal coliform. While the New River is often considered a clean waterway, during certain weather events, streams load the river with pollutants.

Heather Lukacs, clean water facilitator in the New River Gorge region for the National Parks Conservation Association, was one of the primary organizers of the report. She said now that the problems and potential solutions have been identified and published, it is time to continue efforts to clean up the New River.

“Someone said to me once ‘no one is against clean water,’” Lukacs said. “I don’t personally believe anybody is intentionally polluting the water in the Lower New River Watershed. I think what is happening is that there isn’t sufficient funding to repair some of the sewer leaks.”

The Lower New River is designated as “impaired” by the state of West Virginia. That means the water is not ideal for human contact or to serve as a drinking water supply during high-water flows.

Wednesday, the New River Clean Water Alliance released a final copy of their “State of the Watershed” report. The release was celebrated with a float trip down the New River to show local leaders and elected officials firsthand some of the challenges facing the New River.

Mickey Fearn, deputy director for communications and community assistance for the National Park Service, traveled from Washington, D.C., to experience a portion of the trip and observe some of the issues with the New River. He applauded the combined efforts of the New River Clean Water Alliance.

“One of my responsibilities with the National Park Service is partnerships, and partnerships mean that we enter into meaningful relationships with people in communities to help us get our work done,” Fearn said. “Nothing we do gets done by people working alone.”

Don Striker, superintendent at the New River National Park, said people need to examine the far-reaching effects of water quality in the New River. He said “getting our arms around” the problem of water quality has been one of the biggest challenges for the National Park Service.

“In part, being on top of the watershed, it’s easy for us to get lazy and take for granted the amazing resource that we have in clean water, but I think it’s a resource that is increasingly... with climate change ... and other changes that are coming with industry, like the Marcellus shale ... We may not be able to rely on an abundant source of clean water as we have in the past.”

Mark Lewis, executive director of West Virginia Professional River Outfitters Association, said that to his industry, clean, attractive water flowing through the New River is “paramount.” The industry, he said, is actually very active in cleaning up the river.

“What we’re trying to do is connect people to the importance of the resource and the beauty of the resource, and I truly believe that the best way to experience that and to understand its full impact is to see it firsthand and to come out here on the river in the water,” Lewis said. “I think that anyone who does will see that it is something worth protecting.”

The report largely focuses on the priority tributaries around the Piney Creek Watershed around Beckley, Arbuckle Creek around Oak Hill and the Wolf Creek Watershed around Fayettevile.

Many of the problems have arisen from leaky and aged sewage systems in those watersheds. Eliminating leaks, either through new infrastructure or repairing existing lines, is a top priority for the New River Clean Water Alliance.

Jeremiah Johnson, the operations manager at the Beckley Sanitary Board, deals with water quality management daily. He said getting out on the New River and seeing kids in the water and other recreational boaters enjoying the resource “makes it real” for him.

“It sort of recharges the batteries as far as the work that is left undone to do,” Johnson said.

He said Beckley is the largest upstream community that impacts the New River Watershed. Johnson said that storm water and sewage treatment in Beckley can drastically affect the New River.

Ann Worley, a Beckley Common Council member, also went on the trip and said she was happy to have the opportunity to network with people so involved in such an important issue.

“This has been an eye-opening experience,” Worley said. “ ... (Other council members) missed a great time and a great way to network with people outside of the city who eventually we impact on the New River.”

Worley said she was planning on going back to the mayor with the message that more education and care in regard to downstream impact should be considered.

Lukacs said other educational float trips through the New River were also being conducted to spread the message of conservation in the New River area. 

“We spend a lot of times in meeting rooms, and a lot can get done in that way, but I think there is no better way to understand and start to internalize other than to actually experience it — to stand at the mouth of Arbuckle Creek and look upstream and think about where it comes from,” Lukacs said.

The goals of the alliance are separated into three categories. Concurrently, the group plans to take steps toward increasing community support, bolstering aging infrastructure, and demonstrating alternative, “greener” solutions to infrastructure.

John Tingley, a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection environmental resource specialist and a whitewater kayaker, attended the trip as well and had the opportunity to meet with others concerned about water quality in the New River and throughout the state.

“There are a lot of needs in this state that are still unmet,” Tingley said. “There are a lot of things that will only be solved by community involvement programs like this. ... The biggest problem we have in this state is that people don’t think there is a problem, and there is.”

Frank Lukacs, founder of guiding outfits North American River Runners and ACE, said he has been running the New River since 1976, and though there are real issues to address, he has hope for the future of the New River.

“I do believe that we are addressing the water quality issues and that people are becoming more conscious of it,” he said. “I believe — this is anecdotal — that the river is getting cleaner. We are taking positive steps.”

The importance of the New River, the alliance states in the report, extends well beyond those who directly contact the river. The National Park Service attributes about $130 million per year of the local economy to the river and its surrounding recreational activity. More than 100,000 boaters are estimated to paddle the New every year.

The quality of the New River’s recreation opportunity has not only attracted tents and cabins for tourism. The area is also the location of the Boy Scouts’ new high-adventure camp.

The Lower New River Watershed encompasses about 690 square miles and includes the area drained from the Bluestone Dam in Hinton to Gauley Bridge.

The report also presents the very human side of the New River. Steeped in history, there is an abundance of tradition surrounding the river, and that is presented in the report as well.

The New River Clean Water Alliance is made up of numerous interested parties including the National Parks Conservation Association, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Plateau Action Network, the National Park Service, West Virginia Professional River Outfitters, Mountain Resource Conservation and Development, Southern Conservation District, Piney Creek Watershed Association and the National Committee for the New River.

— E-mail: tkuykendall@register-herald.com

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