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"Cacapon" December 2001 You can download (856 KB, PDF) the newsletter to your computer, or read it on our website.  Reading it on the web will be a good deal faster, but the formating will not be the same.

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The Big Muddy?  - Corridor H and the Cacapon River

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Why Sediment Matters

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Goodbye Nicole

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Comparing Benthic Sampling Methods

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Watershed Stewardship Fairs

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How is driving a car like drinking water?  "Keep Well" Water Program Report

 

 

The Big Muddy?

Neil Gillies

Sections of the Corridor H four-lane highway are now being built in the Cacapon and South Branch of the Potomac watersheds. No matter what you think about this highway, now that it is being built our concerns must shift to the impacts of construction on our environment. The biggest threat to our rivers is runoff from construction sites.

How is construction runoff regulated? Storm water pollution from construction sites of greater than three acres total land disturbance comes under the West Virginia National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) General Water Pollution Control Permit. The permit process, administered and enforced by the WV Division of Environmental Protection, aims to prevent violation of water quality standards by requiring the construction and maintenance of defined Best Management Practices (BMPs).

Shaping and blasting on Corridor H between Baker and South Branch Mountain.  Click to enlarge.Accompanied by WVDEP enforcement officers, I had the opportunity to tour the Corridor H construction sites from Baker to the top of South Branch Mountain and get a close-up view of the BMPs being used to limit erosion from their sites and protect our rivers from sedimentation (See Why Sediment Matters). After years of working in construction, I am quite familiar with erosion control on typical building sites. However, the scale of highway construction projects offers special challenges.

We’ve all seen the black silt-fences and hay bales that are the most obvious methods used to contain dirt on construction sites. On a site as large and dynamic as a four-lane highway, however, such measures are like putting band-aids on a gaping wound. These projects expose a huge amount of acreage to erosion, and the surface of the land is constantly being raised (filled) or lowered (cut) to achieve the final grade. This activity is particularly dynamic when you build in mountainous terrain. In addition to the road's surface, there are the sides of the highway - which often slope steeply up or down and are thus particularly prone to erosion.

The builders also have a problem with very fine sediments (in part created by blasting and heavy equipment) that erode easily and remain in suspeded in the water for a very long time. Whether cutting, filling or shaping the margins, these highway sites are in a constant state of change.

Realistically, you can't build a road like this without losing some sediment. Erosion control is a moving target that demands constant attention in order to be effective. The contractor must both contain and direct the flow of storm water across the surface of the project so that, when the water goes anywhere, it goes where it will do the least damage. Usually the runoff is directed into a specially built sediment basin or pond.

Pipe slope drain leads down to sediment pond (click to enlarge).It works this way. As the road surface is sculpted, it is brought up (or down) in such a way that water will flow to the edge. Water flowing along that edge is contained by a low earthen berm and flows to a low spot. At the low spot, a hole in the berm allows the water to flow off the road's surface into a large black plastic pipe, known as a pipe slope drain. The water is carried down that pipe to a sediment pond -- the lynchpin of the entire process.

By law, the sediment pond is required to be large enough to hold the runoff of a 2-year, 24-hour storm from the entire drainage area "above" the pond. A 2-year, 24-hour storm is pretty big — in our region, about three inches of rain in one day. The General Water Pollution Discharge NPDES permit for these projects, issued by WVDEP and dated January 1998, requires the pond to be sized at 3600 cubic feet per acre of drainage area. The pond must also be maintained so that it is "ready" for the next storm.

The Wardensville-based Stewards of the Potomac Highlands asked Cacapon Institute to review the construction documents and permits for Corridor H to see if the construction operations were being conducted correctly. We were already apprehensive about the impacts of Corridor H. A number of CI members had called me with concerns about how muddy the Cacapon, Lost and North Rivers had been this summer (Corridor H construction was one of many reasons for this), and I had been documenting a sedimentation problem from several Corridor H sites. We examined the WVDOH and WVDEP inspectors’ reports. Although in many cases the contractors were doing a better than average job of coping with runoff, we found one consistent problem: the sediment ponds were all too small!

This was not the fault of the contractors, but of the design. Both the construction design documents and the WV Department of Highways BMP manual (on which the designs were based) described sediment ponds of 1800 cubic feet per acre of disturbed land. This is half the 3600 cubic foot per acre size required by the governing NPDES permit. Actually less than half, because the NPDES permit is based on total drainage area and the WVDOH design is based only on disturbed area. The NPDES permit accepts BMPs developed by other agencies (such as the WVDOH) only "if those BMPs meet the minimum requirements found in this permit…."

Based on our research, Stewards of the Potomac Highlands (www.potomacstewards.org) and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (www.wvrivers.org) decided to join forces on this issue. They informed WVDOH of plans to bring a lawsuit in October of 2001, saying the ponds being built to catch Corridor H construction runoff were inadequate to keep mud from polluting trout streams in Hardy County's Lost River watershed. A letter from the environmental groups' attorney, Thomas Michael of Clarksburg, stated, "WVDEP inspectors, and at times WVDOH's own Environmental Monitor, have repeatedly issued reports during 2000 and 2001 citing the small size of sediment ponds on sections of Corridor H already under construction between Baker and Moorefield and Elkins and Kerens.  At least one report cites muddy water overtopping a sediment pond and flowing into nearby streams."

After a suit was filed, WVDOH agreed (prior to the first judicial hearing) to amend its BMP manual and enlarge sediment ponds on its Baker-Wardensville construction sites to meet the requirements of their permit and other sites around the state. This victory will go a long way towards protecting rivers across West Virginia from sedimentation from highway construction projects.

For a photo essay on the construction and erosion control practices used on Corridor H, click here.

Corridor H and Nutrients

We were surprised to see nutrient levels increase in one of our study streams as Corridor H construction got underway. Both nitrogen (as nitrate) and phosphorus levels increased in Skaggs Run over pre-construction levels. The increase was apparently caused by attempts to control erosion on road banks by hydroseeding — a mixture of grass seeds, mulch and fertilizer — as required by construction specifications. Unfortunately, hydroseeding on banks composed of large rocks is not often terribly effective, leaving many of the nutrients to wash "down" during rainstorms. We did not see nutrient increases in Baker Run, the other study stream most directly effected by construction.

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Goodbye Nicole

After over two years at Cacapon Institute, Research Assistant Nicole Navis has left to pursue a Masters degree in environmental science at U. of Wisconsin at Madison. She was a great asset to the Institute, with responsibilities ranging from sampler, chemist, microbiologist, Chief Bottle Washer, GIS specialist, web master, editor and landscape manager -- although her newly acquired and rather extreme sensitivity to poison ivy nipped that in the bud.

Nicole in her element -- sampling high water on a cold spring day.  Click to enlarge.Nicole took the lead on one of her real passions here —stream biology. Last year, we received a small grant from the WV Division of Natural Resources to assess how well volunteer stream health monitoring using insects and other small animals (known as benthic macroinvertebrates) compares to professional methods. Thanks to enthusiastic cooperation from the WV Division of Environmental Protection, we were able to conduct side-by-side comparisons at over 20 sites last summer. An overview of the project and results are provided in the article below. You can also read a full accounting on our website. This project provides a fine legacy for Nicole's time here at the Institute, as we will be working with WVDEP to train volunteer groups in the modified methods that resulted directly from this project.

We wish Nicole the best in her new endeavors.

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COMPARING A PROFESSIONAL METHOD AND A VOLUNTEER METHOD FOR ASSESSING STREAM HEALTH

Overview of Science and Society Series, Number 2

By Nicole Navis and W. Neil Gillies, June 2001

The science of using animals to assess the vitality of a river ecosystem has gone public — since the Izaak Walton League began their pioneering Save Our Streams (SOS) program in 1969, volunteer stream monitoring programs have sprouted up throughout the country. These volunteer programs make the link between causes and effects of pollution using hands-on, in-stream activities, and play an essential role in making the societal benefits of clean water immediate and real to participants.

The SOS and other volunteer methods are similar in general design to the methods used by professional biologists, but are tailored to the capabilities of non-professionals. Both methods assess stream health using benthic macroinvertebrates, the small animals without backbones (invertebrates) that live on the river bottom (benthos) and are visible without magnification (macro). They include the water-living larval stages of flying insects such as mayflies, dragonflies and gnats, small shellfish such as the small, white asian clams that litter the bottoms of many eastern rivers, and many other kinds of life.

The advantage of using aquatic organisms over chemical indicators of water quality – such as the amount of nitrogen in a water sample – is that animals are constantly "sampling" their environment and the communities found in benthic samples are indicative of water quality conditions over time. Chemical measures, in contrast, provide a momentary snapshot in a constantly changing environment.

The challenge in using aquatic organisms, however, comes in understanding what the animals are telling us. Researchers looked for individual "indicator" species or indicator groups of species that, by their presence, absence, or abundance relative to other organisms, indicate specific environmental conditions. Both the professional method used by WV State Biologists and the volunteer SOS method look at groups of organisms.

Cacapon Institute compared results from WV’s volunteer SOS monitoring and the more scientifically rigorous Rapid Bioassessment Protocol (RBPII) stream assessment methods used by WV’s Division of Environmental Protection. A central assumption of this project was that the biological assessment protocols used by WVDEP represent a high professional standard and therefore provide a suitable "yardstick" to measure the success of volunteer methods. Key findings of this study:

bulletSOS Stream Scores tend to overestimate the health of streams.
bulletSOS Stream Scores as currently calculated are not consistently comparable to professional results because they lack abundance data and thereby lack critical information.
bulletThe identification level used with the SOS method (mayfly, stonefly, clam, etc.) can provide a stream assessment comparable to professional methods if all organisms collected are counted.
bulletThe SOS method of fieldpicking live organisms appears to disproportionately miss some small organisms in specific groups, like midges and blackflies, when compared to picking preserved samples in the lab. This difference appears to be of paramount importance.

We proposed a modified volunteer method that uses the same level of identification skill currently required of SOS volunteers and the same collection technique. It differs by requiring samples to be preserved in the field for "picking" under slight magnification and good lighting at home, in counting the organisms obtained, and in noting different "kinds" within each of the current SOS identification categories. If this information is obtained, non-professional, volunteer-conducted, benthic stream assessment data can produce results that compare favorably to professional assessments.

Picking?

When you collect a river bottom sample using a net, the net fills not only with animals but with debris such as leaves, algae and rocks. To get the animals out of that debris, you have to pick through the sample with a pair of forceps, good light, and a lot of patience.

Why does it matter? In the years since the SOS program was developed by the Izaak Walton League in 1969, government agencies have begun to pay more attention to what "the people" have to say. The burgeoning watershed association movement is one example of that. As a result of this change, there has been increasing pressure on environmental agencies to accept data from citizen's groups. The method we propose requires a bit more work by volunteers but is, hopefully, more rewarding because the results will have greater validity and, also hopefully, achieve greater acceptance by government agencies.

This project was supported by a grant from the WV Division of Natural Resources Non-Game Wildlife & Natural Heritage Research/Cooperative Projects Program. This project also would not have been possible without extraordinary cooperation from the WV Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Water Resources.

A detailed paper on this subject is available at A Comparison of Professional and Volunteer Methods for Assessing Stream Health, Including Discussion of an Improved Volunteer Method" (100 KB, PDF file).

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Promoting watershed conservation and environmental careers

We are poised to begin a new EPA-supported activity—Watershed Stewardship Fairs. Local professionals that deal with conservation issues will present their jobs and lead a series of short classes on watershed conservation to students in area schools. After students rotate through these stations we will hold a panel discussion on watershed conservation issues. The result will be better-informed students with a better idea of conservation-related career alternatives. Look for the report out on our web site towards the end of the school year!

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How is driving a car like drinking water ?

Peter Maille

It seems to be part of the human condition to take for granted things we have in abundance. This holds true for pure drinking water…but perhaps a little less so after our "Keep Well" drinking water project.

We worked with five teachers and over 140 students in four WV counties to test their drinking water for bacteria. In each class we described the EPA-accepted testing protocol for coliform bacteria and handed out sampling vials. The students sampled their home tap water, incubated it in the classroom for 24 hours, and then we returned to help analyze the samples and discuss the results.

The moment before we opened the incubator was always full of anticipation with students craning their necks to see the samples. A gasp typically accompanied their first view of the vials -- almost half of which had turned from clear to bright yellow. Yellow indicates the presence of coliform bacteria, which in turn indicates that surface water may be leaking into a well. Samples with E. coli, one type of coliform bacteria that lives in the digestive tract of warm-blooded animals, glowed bright blue when we shined a black light on them. Overall, about 40% of the wells tested positive for coliform bacteria and 5%, E. coli.

Based on pre and post-activity evaluations students came away with a significantly better understanding of well water contamination and its causes. What we learned is that this is not enough—to our knowledge no one with contaminated water followed up with a relatively simple well sterilization program or even a re-testing. And here is where drinking water is like driving a car. Water with coliform bacteria doesn’t necessarily make you sick. Nor does driving a car without a seatbelt necessarily hurt you. However, over the long run we all know seat belts save lives. Likewise, it is common sense to do what you can to safeguard your drinking water. Knowing that education is a process, we look forward to helping students make the jump from understanding to action the next time we undertake Keep Well. A more complete description of this project, including photos showing students and yellow vials, is on our web site.

This project was funded by the USEPA’s Environmental Education Grants program.

For a more detailed look at the "Keep Well" program, click here.

For a "Keep Well" Photo Gallery, click here.

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Cacapon Institute - From the Cacapon to the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay, we protect rivers and watersheds using science and education.

Cacapon Institute
PO Box 68
High View, WV 26808
304-856-1385 (tele)
304-856-1386 (fax)
Click here to send us an email
Frank Rodgers,  Executive Director

Website  made possible by funding from The Norcross Wildlife Foundation,  the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Virginia Environmental Endowment, NOAA-BWET, USEPA, The MARPAT Foundation, and our generous members.