By C.V. Moore
The New River Clean Water Alliance is about to wrap up an eight-month water monitoring project on Arbuckle Creek, part of the local group’s ongoing effort to draw awareness to water quality issues in the Lower New River watershed and target cleanup efforts in the recreational hotspot.
For its size, Arbuckle Creek contributes the most fecal pollution into the New River for any tributary that flows in below Hinton.
The purpose of the study was three-fold. First, the Alliance wanted to get people out in the creek to raise awareness of the issue. Volunteer monitors brought home tests and actually got to see bacteria growing.
The second purpose was scientific — to understand where the pollution is coming from.
And finally, the group wanted to test out a monitoring protocol to find out the best techniques for achieving these goals.
The creek is being monitored at seven distinct points, from a spot near its headwaters all the way to its mouth on the New River.
Alan Jennings, operations manager for ACE Adventure Resort, participated in the monitoring program as a volunteer. He and a partner took samples at a point one half mile above the mouth of the creek, and at the mouth itself.
“Obviously, we are a rafting company and we would like to have the waters that we travel — which are the New and Gauley rivers — as clean as possible,” he says. “So we hope that this program will allow us to identify problems in the creeks that enter the New River and that we’ll be able to alleviate some of the problems.”
The project follows up on the recommendations of a “Lower New River State of the Watershed” report, released by the New River Clean Water Alliance in 2011.
The New River Clean Water Alliance is a partnership dedicated to promoting clean water and community efforts in the New River and its tributaries in Fayette, Summers, and Raleigh counties. It includes nine partnering organizations, from government agencies to non-profits to watershed associations.
The report compiled and analyzed existing water quality data to identify Arbuckle Creek, Piney Creek and Wolf Creek as three “top priority” sub-watersheds.
Focusing efforts on these areas, the authors said, would make the most sense for cleaning up the New.
Jennings says he has seen another tributary of the New, Dunloup Creek, recover substantially during his career in West Virginia’s whitewater industry, due in large part to the diligence of White Oak PSD in handling their waste treatment. Now, it’s to the point where the creek is stocked with trout.
“Fishermen come from all over to fish in it because the fish can thrive,” says Jennings. “You can see it visually, the health of the stream coming back.”
Chris Pennington, another local volunteer, grew up on Minden Road and his monitoring site was right down the road from his childhood home.
“It was right there with me as I was growing up,” he says of Arbuckle Creek.
“I didn’t realize Arbuckle was as bad as it was. When I was young, I was told not to go in it, but I did anyway. I have a lot of memories with my buddies just wading and throwing rocks and goofing off,” he says.
Those memories contributed to his desire to work on water issues in the area. He found the New River Clean Water Alliance on Facebook and showed up at a meeting two years ago, where he learned about he conclusions of the “State of the Watershed” report.
“I knew I wanted to help out somewhere in the watershed,” he says. “I love the river.”
Pennington hopes that one day Arbuckle, like Dunloup, can bounce back and be used recreationally for fishing and boating.
The program established monthly monitoring points both upstream and downstream from two key wastewater treatment plants — Minden PSD, which treats Oak Hill’s water, and Arbuckle PSD, which serves customers in Minden.
Though efforts are currently being made to put the district back on an even course, Arbuckle PSD also has a history of dysfunction that has led to aging and under-maintained infrastructure. Some fear that the plant is responsible for much of the creek’s pollution.
Prior to the study, the bulk of available water quality data on Arbuckle came from two National Park Service monitoring points, one above the Minden PSD and one at the mouth of the creek.
“No one had attempted to get in and sample further up,” says Heather Lukacs of the National Parks Conservation Association, who is providing leadership on the monitoring program.
When Lukacs found out that past sampling efforts showed high levels of fecal coliform upstream of the PSD, she became alarmed and wondered where the pollution was coming from.
Lukacs is a Fayette County native whose father owned a rafting company in the area. She grew up on the New River and is now a doctoral candidate at Stanford University studying watershed groups in Appalachia.
The volunteers held their first meeting last December, held training in February and started monitoring in March. They piloted a sampling protocol developed by the National Committee for the New River in North Carolina.
They sampled for concentrations of e-coli and fecal coliform, tested pH levels, and — for the first time — measured flow.
“Flow is critically important because you can’t know the amount of pollution entering into the (New) River if you don’t have an idea of what the flow is,” says Lukacs. “All these other measures are just of a concentration.”
The final analysis is still a few weeks away, but preliminary data suggest that there’s a substantial water source dumping water into the creek below the Arbuckle PSD, diluting the waste. Lukacs says it could be from a mine, spring or other underground source.
Another surprise is that the highest levels of pollution are measured at a point above the Arbuckle PSD, which supports the hypothesis that leaky pipes in Minden may play a substantial role in the overall impairment of the stream.
“Basically I think (the data) is saying that it might not be the PSD treatment plants themselves that are the sources of greatest concern,” says Lukacs.
Finally, rain events proved to have a dramatic impact on the results of sampling as stormwater flushed out .
“I think it was wild from the perspective of the monitors that you could be at the same site one day and it’s 100 (colony forming units per 100 ml) and a month later it’s 200,000,” says Lukacs.
Reducing the excess water that flows into sewer pipes from groundwater and stormwater during heavy rain events, known as “infiltration and inflow,” will likely be expensive, but it’s something the Alliance advocates for.
“It’s like potholes in our sewer system,” says Lukacs. “We thought going into this, and continue to think, that that’s the biggest issue.”
Eventually the Alliance would like to grow the program and organizers are looking for a way to transition it into an institutional home where it can continue.
Volunteers, both within and outside the local community, held the project together through their enthusiasm for clean water and healthy ecosystems.
Pennington, a student of environmental geoscience at Concord University, even got his fresh water ecology class involved in the project. His professor, Dr. Tom Ford, agreed to bring students up to the creek twice over the course of the semester to do some monitoring. The class put together a final report on the health of the stream, which included chemical analysis, macroinvertebrates and hydrology, as their final class project.
“I’m glad people around here are starting to care,” he says. “And it’s good to see that there are people from outside this area that are willing to help out.”
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