Watershed assessment project in Elk, Mon rivers seeks feedback - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Watershed assessment project in Elk, Mon rivers seeks feedback

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A pilot project to make map-based information about watershed health and threats available online at a high level of detail has reached a milestone.

Watershed groups, county planners and others looking for the highest conservation or restoration priorities will be helped by the West Virginia Watershed Assessment Pilot Project, a project of the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Environmental Protection under funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Nature Conservancy is ready to share its progress over the past year with stakeholders in the Elk and Monongahela watersheds.

"The goal for these workshops is to present what we are proposing as an interactive web tool and as a report and getting feedback about what works for (stakeholders), what they would like to see, what doesn't working for them," said Ruth Thornton, the Nature Conservancy's conservation information manager.

The two-year pilot project encompasses five West Virginia watersheds: over the past year, the Elk and Monongahela and, over the coming year, the Gauley, Little Kanawha and Upper Guyandotte.

The overarching goal of the project is to create a tool that helps a range of stakeholders make decisions affecting aquatic resources, leading to an increase in the functional wetland and riparian acreage in a watershed.

To do that, the Nature Conservancy's West Virginia field office has been meeting over the past year with the Environmental Protection Agency, university researchers and others who have local knowledge and data, to pull information together and begin designing the interactive mapping tool.

"We're gathering all sorts of data on these watersheds, mostly GIS data, map data that is mostly publicly available," Thornton said. "We got some sensitive datasets as well, like the rare species."

Within the two watersheds, the Nature Conservancy team has drilled down from the Hydrologic Unit Code-8, or HUC-8, level — that's United States Geological Survey speak for a watershed the size of the Elk or the Mon — down to the HUC-12 level. There are 22 of those in the Mon and 44 in the Elk.

And they're going smaller still, Thornton said, down to units of 100-500 acres: the scale where planning and projects take place.

"We have to look smaller to assess priority areas for conservation," she said. "We're ranking all of these smaller planning units and saying, for example, in terms of biodiversity, these are higher. In terms of habitat quality, these are higher. Water quality, wetland quality, upland quality, trying to take a complete look at all of the systems that would be important for conservation decisions."

Watersheds will be ranked, both overall and in categories.

"So if someone is looking for stream restoration opportunities, they would probably look for medium-rated areas, and they might look at things like water quality and quality of riparian habitat," Thornton said. "The tool will allow them to hone in on specific target areas that might be good candidates."

Now, a year into the project, Thornton and her colleagues are ready to meet with stakeholders in the first two watersheds to show their progress.

"Before we go too much further, we want to make sure the product we're developing will work for stakeholders and partners," she said.

She expects the tool to be used by watershed associations and other nonprofit organizations, counties and towns, as well as private citizens who want to know more about their watersheds.

"You can learn a lot by looking at what landfills are in the area, what the land cover is like, where are the gas wells, where is there acid mine drainage — but also, what are the insects, what are the fish species, things like that," she said.

The live web tool likely will be available around April 2013, and Thornton said she hopes more watersheds will be added.

"This is a pilot project on five watersheds, and I believe there are 42 watersheds in West Virginia," she said. "So we are setting up the methodology and hopefully, with more funding becoming available, the DEP or somebody in the state will be able to continue this and expand it."

Those interested in about progress so far on the Monongahela River can attend a meeting on April 3 in Morgantown, and those interested in the Elk can attend April 5 in Charleston. Times and locations have not yet been set; for information, contact Thornton at (304) 637-0160, ext. 102.

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