Potomac Highlands Watershed School

Cacapon River Watershed Readings

Excerpts from

Portrait of a River:

The Ecological Baseline of the Cacapon River

Read the entire document: Portrait of a River: The Ecological Baseline of the Cacapon River (2.5 mb, PDF)

Published 1993



In 1989, Cacapon Institute (then named Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory) began an intensive, four-year effort to assemble an ecological baseline of the Cacapon River.

The baseline a detailed scientific picture of the river's current ecological health is part of a citizen-based effort to protect the Cacapon (pronounced Kuh-kay-pun). The river, located about 80 miles west of Washington, B.C., faces an uncertain future. Increasing population, the growth of new industries, and the proposed construction of dams and a major highway have the potential to damage the river basin's environmental health.

Like a medical chart, the baseline is part of an early warning system, allowing future changes in the river's health to be diagnosed quickly and, it is hoped, treated before problems become too serious.

To the best of our knowledge, this baseline is the most comprehensive ever assembled for an entire river continuum. It is more than a dry scientific document, however. It is a conservation tool that can be used to trigger enforcement of environmental laws, to help develop new policies, and to involve the public in the process of learning about and protecting rivers. It is also meant to serve as a model all of the nation's rivers could benefit from a baseline.

Except for one parameter, this baseline was assembled using research methods approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Data produced by these methods can be used in courts of law and regulatory hearings. In many states, including West Virginia, this is important since state governments often lack the data needed to enforce environmental laws.

The four-year process of assembling the baseline (1989 through 1992) included 149 trips to 106 study sites and involved many hands-on volunteers, school groups, and extensive interactions with government, business, and community leaders.

Baseline findings

The baseline reveals a Cacapon River that is relatively healthy, but burdened by pollution created by certain land uses. It shows that the river's health varies significantly, depending on location and water level:

> Location We divided the Cacapon into four reaches: Lower Cacapon, Middle Cacapon, Lost River, and North River. Two upstream reaches Lost River and Middle Cacapon are more polluted than the others, in part because cattle have free access to these reaches. As cattle access sites increase, so do pollution levels.

> Water level The river is more polluted at high water levels (after storms) than at low water. During high flow, pollution levels often exceed water quality standards established to protect human health.

These water quality changes are consistent with "nonpoint source" pollution. Unlike "point source" pollution, which comes from an easily located source such as a factory outlet pipe, nonpoint source pollutants wash off the landscape from a broad array of hard-to-control sources. Rivers suffering from point source pollution are often more polluted in downstream reaches and during low water. In contrast, the Cacapon suffers from pollution in upstream areas and at high water. A primary source of this nonpoint pollution is runoff from farms, particularly areas used by livestock.

The river's nonpoint pollution problem has public health implications:

> First, pollutants are transported downstream into areas used for recreation and include hundreds of riverside homes, six children's camps, and five public access sites.  

> Second, many boaters use the Cacapon during times of high water, when unhealthy pollution levels occur.

The Cacapon's pollution problems are aggravated by damage to the river's riparia the riverside corridors of vegetation that defend the river against many threats. For example, a healthy riparian corridor can block pollutants from entering a river, soak up storm waters, and reduce erosion.

Restoring the Cacapon's damaged riparia by planting trees and shrubs, stabilizing banks, or limiting cattle access to the river will be an important first step toward improving the ecological health of the Cacapon. Other needed steps include:

> Preventing future riparian damage.

> Continued monitoring of the Cacapon's health.  Without periodic checkups, the baseline's early warning value will be lost.

> More study. For example, we need to know if the Cacapon harbors other serious pollutants, such as pesticides or heavy metals.

Protecting the Cacapon will take cooperation from state and federal government officials, business owners and civic leaders, and landowners and parents. The time to act is now.