Climate Change in W.Va.: ‘Nobody Wants to Drink Unsafe Water’

West Virginia

This is part two to a three-part series examining how climate change is affecting West Virginia and the solutions currently being discussed. In this part, we will discuss specific examples of climate change’s effects on the Mountain State.

Morgantown, W.Va. – In the last installment of Climate Change in West Virginia, we explained how climate change is caused by greenhouse gases–like carbon dioxide–and how climate change causes a water cycle intensification. We also talked about how carbon dioxide lasts thousands of years in the atmosphere and how the fossil fuel industry has been on a four-decade-long campaign to discredit climate change.

So, West Virginians arguably struggle the most with understanding the effects of climate change because we can’t relate to melting ice caps or a rising sea level, but in fact, there are real effects that West Virginians are feeling in their own backyard. 

Courtesy: Climate Central

First thing is, it’s hot. Clarksburg and Elkins had the warmest year on record last year. In September and October of last year, West Virginia had some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded. Huntington, Beckley, Elkins, and Clarksburg recorded their hottest September ever. In Clarksburg, temperatures peaked at 95 degrees. The National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Charleston confirmed that Clarksburg and Elkins had the driest September of recent memory that year.

And this year, the temperatures were so high that Snowshoe Mountain Resort had to delay their opening.

A lot of the climate change effects in West Virginia have to do with water, and that’s one thing the Mountain Hydrology Lab at West Virginia University is currently researching. The lab studies the circulation of water and the processes related to how much water we have and how it’s being used. They also look at how different factors like climate change and land-use change affect water quantity and quality. What the Mountain Hydrology Lab found is that West Virginia has an abundance of water.

“West Virginia is the 14th wettest state in the country, and we have over 50,000 miles of creeks, streams, and rivers in West Virginia, which is pretty mind-blowing if you think about what a small state we are. We have an abundance of water, but unfortunately, just because we have an abundance of water doesn’t mean we’re water-rich,” explained Nicolas Zegre, Director of the Mountain Hydrology Lab.

Unfortunately, just because we have an abundance of water doesn’t mean we’re water-rich.

Nicolas Zegre, Director of the Mountain Hydrology Lab at West Virginia University

According to the research at the lab, West Virginia struggles with water security, which means we have trouble with having clean and reliable water to maintain a quality of life. 

As stated in the last episode, hotter temperatures mean the air can hold more water, and what goes up must come down. Studies are showing that more intense water events are affecting our state, like the 2016 thousand-year flood.

A house that was torn apart by the thousand-year flood in 2016

The historic flood took place in the southern and central parts of the state, where communities received between 8-9 inches of rain in two days. The flood resulted in 23 deaths, making it the deadliest flash flood in the United States since the 2010 Tennessee floods. 

As the name says, this type of weather event is known for only coming around every thousand years, but research indicates that we can expect this type of weather more often because of climate change. 

“Then we ask the question of where do most West Virginians live? Of course, that’s along creeks, rivers, and streams. Where’s all of our infrastructure? Our roads, our bridges, our railway systems, our water treatment facilities–those are all along our water corridors,” said Zegre.

However, because water has to evaporate in the air for the rain to fall, we’re also likely to see more intense drought.

“We will see swings…and what we risk is missing what’s important to our ecosystems in having a normalized middle ground of what we can expect in terms of rivers and streams flowing at certain levels that keep people out of harm’s way,” explained Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

If there’s less water, there’s more concentration of pollution in our streams, which increases the cost of taxpayers for having water treatment.

Nicolas Zegre, Director of the Mountain Hydrology Lab at West Virginia University

“Last fall was a great example when the governor declared a state of emergency for all 55 counties because of a prolonged drought,” explained Zegre, “If we have more droughts, there’s less water available for the economy…If there’s less water, there’s more concentration of pollution in our streams, which increases the cost of taxpayers for having water treatment.”

Experts explained that what makes this even scarier is that our infrastructure is not adequate to deal with these issues. According to the National Inventory of Dams, almost 90% of dams in West Virginia have either a high or significant hazard potential. 

This pie chart shows the percentage of dams in West Virginia that are considered by the National Inventory of Dams to have a low, significant, or high hazard potential, as well as dams that were undetermined.

“We also have tremendous pollution related to inadequate infrastructure to treat water. Whether that’s septic systems, whether that’s sewer systems, whether that’s water treatment facilities,” Zegre said.

A report by the National Resources Defense Council found that 36 out of 55 West Virginia counties are in the top third-worst in the nation for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The United States Environmental Protection Agency outlined drinking water standards for more than 90 contaminants. EWG’s Tap Water Database provides more specific information on water utilities and the violation points the EPA has imposed on them between 2012 and 2017. Two utilities in West Virginia have well over 500 violation points, an astounding number considering the worst offending utilities in surrounding states have nowhere near that many points (Ohio, 120; Pennsylvania, 308; Maryland, 64).

“Nobody wants to drink unsafe water, and how can you possibly keep people in the state and recruit businesses to the state if there isn’t the certainty that the workforce is going to be able to have clean, safe drinking water?” Zegre stated.

On top of that, West Virginia is a headwater state, which means that water from our state flows down into lots of other states because of our elevation. So the water quality in our state directly affects water in other states as well.

Litter in front of the Opekiska Lock and Dam in Fairmont, W.Va.

So we talked about water as a resource for us humans, but of course, it’s a resource for our state’s animals, too. One specific example, our state fish—the Eastern Brook Trout, which requires cold water to live.

“Brook trout can only survive if the water stays cool and cold at certain temperatures,” explained Rosser, “If it starts to warm up too much, they will not survive, and that is already a threat we’re seeing. Some of those native brook trout patches can be threatened by these warming temperatures, and they’re such a heritage in our state and an identity tied to hunting and fishing and trout fishing. It’s a big economic driver for the state, so again, we risk losing a resource that is part of our way of life and also a part of our tourism and economy.”

Other species at risk include the Red Spruce, the Northern Flying Squirrel, and Cheat Mountain Salamanders.

A sign at the WVU Core Arboretum calling to stop the spread of the Spotted Lanternfly.

On the flip side—last episode, we talked about invasive species taking over our ecosystem. Now, signs along the Morgantown Rail Trail and the West Virginia University Core Arboretum are asking people to report sightings of the Spotted Lanternfly. 

The Spotted Lanternfly, which is native to China, found its way to eastern Pennsylvania in 2014. The fly feeds on tree sap, which damages trees and excrete honeydew, damaging plants by encouraging mold growth. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the flies threaten the agriculture industry, and they’re also just super annoying to deal with. They cover trees, swarm the air, and the honeydew they excrete is hard to get off decks and playgrounds. 

It’s hard to say if the spread of the fly is related directly to climate change, but studies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are showing that the Spotted Lantern Fly thrives in the dry conditions climate change creates.

With fewer cold snaps to keep them in check, the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid and Emerald Ash Borer will continue to kill trees in a similar way.

Our state has the greatest reliance on California–out of any mid-Atlantic state–for our fresh food.

NICOLAS ZEGRE, DIRECTOR OF THE MOUNTAIN HYDROLOGY LAB AT WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY

When we talk about climate change, California comes up a lot. We’re aware of the wildfires. We’re aware of the droughts, and at this point, they’re over-pumping ground water to make up for lack of surface water. 

California’s 20-Year Groundwater Level Trend Map
Courtesy: California Department of Water Resources

According to a report from the California Department of Water Resources, 85 percent of Californians rely on groundwater for some portion of their water supply. California’s climate is the most variable of any state, and some years can be more dry or wet than others, which affects groundwater. But, the 20-Year Groundwater Level Trend map paints a bleak picture with a whole lot of red and orange down-trending arrows.

But California has one crucial thing that West Virginians rely on, and that’s fresh produce.

“Our state has the greatest reliance on California out of any mid-Atlantic state for our fresh food. So, whether we’re talking wildfires or earthquakes or any sort of disruption to our food, to our energy, to our clothes, to our entire economy, that affects us through increased food cost for food, for gasoline, for oil, and it delays the efficiency of our economy,” explained Zegre.

One thing I have covered in the past is our state’s issues with food insecurity, and how it links to our state having the second highest obesity rate in the nation.

Food insecurity is about not having enough money to provide food for your family, and one way to stretch a food budget is to choose low-cost foods, which are generally not healthy food decisions, or convenient foods because of a lack of transportation options, such as fast food. Often, those foods are high in calories and low in nutritional value.

So one could imagine that if fresh produce was even more expensive, a lot of West Virginians who are already struggling to have access to fresh produce would have even more trouble affording healthy food options.

Do we want to be a disposable society where there are very few winners and lots of losers, we have a disproportionate amount of trash, we have polluted air, we have polluted water, [and] we have polluted communities?

NICOLAS ZEGRE, DIRECTOR OF THE MOUNTAIN HYDROLOGY LAB AT WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY

Of course, food insecurity have a serious impact on people living in poverty in the state, but that’s not the only sector where money is potentially being spent on the effects of climate change. 

Flooding comes at a cost to the state, insurance companies, and the individual. The more polluted water is, the more water treatment facilities to treat the water, and the more expensive the water bill is. All of these things make the vulnerable population more vulnerable.

“A plastic water bottle from Walmart is great when you don’t have water, and you’re thirsty, and you need to drink water,” said Zegre, “but we have fresh water in West Virginia everywhere– just not all clean and healthy. And so the question becomes, how do we want to live our lives? Do we want to be a disposable society, where there are very few winners and lots of losers, we have a disproportionate amount of trash, we have polluted air, we have polluted water, [and] we have polluted communities? Or do we want to rethink how we’re doing this thing so that everyone has the opportunity to live in a healthy place and have a healthy job?”

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