When bean counters tabulate the profitable natural resources of West Virginia, calculations are made about the coal that is hauled out of the rugged and rural mountain landscape or the natural gas being captured from thousands of wells in increasing volumes. There remains a vast supply of timber, too.

But for Nicolas Zegre, an associate professor of forest hydrology at West Virginia University and the director of the university’s Mountain Hydrology Laboratory, the most important and largely overlooked commodity in the state is water.

Zegre is studying the state’s water security, how climate change could impact the state’s supply and how the state can position itself to benefit from what he believes is its most valuable resource.

On April 1, Zegre presented the media with the work, some findings and future possibilities for the Mountain Hydrology Laboratory at WVU’s Academic Media Day in Morgantown.

The hydrology professor said that his lab’s work centered on predicting climate in the state and the greater Appalachian region by compiling modeling of climate patterns and possibilities.

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According to Zegre, the historical temperature range of West Virginia falls between 41 degrees and 63 degrees.

Using accepted scientific modeling Zegre predicts that range will rise to between 46 degrees and 68 degrees under the best-case, low-emission scenarios and as high as a range of 50 degrees and 73 degrees under higher-emission scenarios.

While the forecasts are predicting a warmer and wetter West Virginia because of climate change, under the high-emission scenario, Zegre said that some areas of West Virginia would become drier, specifically pointing to the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

Zegre told The Register-Herald that the possibility of less precipitation in the coalfields under the high-emission models doesn’t mean that there will be a condition of drought — just that precipitation will be less than other models based off of fewer-emission scenarios.

A lessening of water flows, which could mean reduced incidents of flooding, also leaves the region vulnerable to the pollution that has built up after more than a century of industrial use.

“Water quality is largely a function of water quantity,” Zegre said. “If we have less stream flows, it could concentrate pollution within streams.”

Zegre told The Register-Herald that he is personally less concerned with decreased rains leading to concentrations of pollution, and more concerned with water security of the world, the nation and the state.

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While noting that many of the populated parts of the world face water security issues due to climate change, Zegre said West Virginia has an opportunity if it can realign itself, maximize its water security and capitalize off of it.

“We are a headwater state, which means all of our water that is produced in West Virginia, that’s not consumed by humans, flows downstream and leaves the state,” the hydrology professor explained. “We provide a tremendous amount of water to downstream economies all along the Mississippi River and in the Potomac drainage.”

According to Zegre, on average of 50 inches of rain falls on the state a year making it the 14th wettest state in the nation. The water flows through approximately 54,000 miles of streams.

“By all views, we are water rich,” Zegre said. “But when you start thinking about West Virginia from the perspective of water security, we’re actually quite insecure.”

The hydrology professor shared concerns about pollution in the state, using as an example the Elk River chemical spill in 2014 that affected 300,000 people in a 10-county area in and around Charleston.

“What this leads to is a breakdown of our social system and our economic system,” the professor said. “A breakdown of our infrastructure, brain drain in West Virginia, chronic health (issues) and the list continues.”

While noting the challenges to the state’s water security, Zegre said that he and his team were hopeful for the future and optimistic that the state can capitalize on its water resources.

“We’re here to provide decision makers and the public with a science-driven understanding of the state of water resources in West Virginia,” Zegre said. “We’re here to increase health resilience and sovereignty of West Virginian communities, ecosystems and the economy based on just policies and practices. We’re here to elevate the importance of West Virginia on a regional, national and international scale. Finally, we are here to enjoy and share the amazingness of potential of West Virginia.”

Zegre and his team aim to accomplish that task by compiling data sets and models for public consumption.

Zegre said his team is working on what he called the “West Virginia Climate Link,” an online, interactive atlas that covers county-level climate and water resources in the present with multiple projections into the future.

“We’re interested in having this information be germane to our decision-making process at the local and state level as we think about the future of West Virginia,” Zegre said.

Zegre and his team are also a part of the Appalachian Fresh Water Initiative, a collaborative effort among WVU, Marshall and West Virginia State University, which is working toward the creation of the Appalachian Hydro-Climatic Dataset, a 2.5-mile grid system which is being used to predict future climatic events across every state that has a county in the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“We have a very good sense on what the future could look like,” Zegre said. “We’re not saying that we know exactly what the future looks like, but what we’re saying is we could put bounds around what the future looks like to minimize our risk as a society.”

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Along with working with in-state and regional partners, Zegre and his team are working with researchers around the country to visualize how climate change could impact West Virginia.

Zegre himself has spent time with researchers at Northern Arizona University working with their FEWSion program, which is a first-ever detailed mapping of the nation’s food, energy and water systems and how they interact to affect the nation’s climate.

With data from FEWSion, Zegre and his team were able to take a look at how West Virginians — both consumers and producers — could be affected from the outside by climate change.

Noting that two-thirds of the nation is getting drier and that West Virginia has had a history with food security and food vulnerability, Zegre and his team looked at exactly where the Mountain State was getting its fresh fruit and vegetables.

Using data from the FEWSion project, the team was able to determine that the majority of the fruits and vegetables consumed in West Virginia were grown in California with approximately 63 percent of the fruit and vegetables coming from California’s Central Valley, which is currently dealing with a lack of water that is forecast to get worse.

“We have the highest dependency on California, for fruits and vegetables, than any other state in the eastern United States,” Zegre said. “Let’s rethink our dependency on other areas.”

Zegre said in-state farms using renewable methods could capitalize off of the state’s ample water resources.

While noting the state’s topography, Zegre spoke on innovative vertical farming methods as a possible solution.

Using the chemical industry as an example, Zegre explained that the state ships chemical products to many nearby states, and that 10 percent of the chemicals produced in the Mountain State are shipped to Texas — more specifically, the Houston area.

According to Zegre, that 10 percent accounts for approximately $380 million to the West Virginia economy a year.

• • •

While noting the current vulnerability of West Virginia to climate change and the state’s poor water security scenario, Zegre believes that the state sits on the edge of a great opportunity if the state can take advantage of it.

“What does a warm, wetter West Virginia mean?” Zegre asked. “In one respect, it means opportunity. It means that we can grow more food in the state, healthy food. It means we can increase jobs. It means we can redefine our communities that are resilient and healthy. It means we can maintain our identity as a rural state that produces goods and services that the rest of the country is dependent upon for growing.”

The hydrology professor made sure to point out that an improved opportunity with slight climate change does not give permission for wanton discharge for climate change, pointing out that forecasts for extreme climate change have areas of the state seeing adverse impacts such as less precipitation.

“We have a great opportunity to rethink how we do business with the public interest in mind while embracing the impacts that are coming down, that are already here related to climate change,” Zegre said.

For the hydrology professor, that opportunity must be discovered from the ground up.

Zegre said his team is planning to work with communities across the state in the summer and hold fall workshops at the WVU campus for those communities.

“We’re trying to get into the communities to understand what their needs are and how we can provide data for them so that they can advocate their elected officials,” Zegre said. “Different communities have different needs. Some have contaminated water. Some have unreliable water. Some have infrastructure that doesn’t extend to them. Since every place is different, we’re trying to gather information to understand what community needs are and then ensure that West Virginia University is playing its role as a land-grant institution looking out for the state first and foremost.”

Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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