Autumn Crowe of West Virginia Rivers Coalition cites public apathy, lax enforcement and weakening of environmental laws as greatest threats to West Virginia’s watersheds
SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. – In his typically sardonic way. John Prine alludes to societal indifference to science in his song, “Lonesome Friends of Science.” He could very well be referring to the daily challenges facing Autumn Crowe, the staff scientist for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
Crowe will be speaking at the Sweet Springs Sustainable Living Forum set for Aug. 16-18 here. Crowe, who will be presenting on Saturday, may be a “lonesome friend of science,” but she is a persistent one. I first had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015 and was pleased to get a chance to speak with her again this week. Below are the questions and answers from that interview.
Question: What are the greatest threats to West Virginia’s watersheds?
Crowe: I struggle with this question myself sometimes. I used to think that the greatest threat was industry. But now I’ve decided the greatest threats are not enforcing current laws and rolling back current protections, because we have regulators that are not enforcing existing laws and those laws we do have are being chipped away.
Another great threat is apathy. The general public is either uninformed that these rollbacks are occurring, or they don’t care. I feel like if people understood what was happening with our environmental protections, they would want to put people in office that do a better job of protecting our environment. So, they either don’t know or don’t care.
That’s why part of what we do is try to educate the public about the threats against our water and what they can do to get involved.
Question: Are the state’s municipal water systems and infrastructures safe, up-to-date, and managed soundly?
Crowe: They’re highly regulated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the Safe Water Drinking Act which regulates municipal water systems. There are strict requirements for reporting quality of water to their customers on an annual basis. There are also strict criteria to be considered safe. There are lot of checks to ensure safe water to customers. It’s good that regulations are in place.
There are a lot of infrastructure needs. It varies across the state where they are in those updates. Some are desperate. Money is an issue. It’s going to take a lot of money to update the water systems across the state. Some utilities are small, some are larger. While it really varies across the state, because they are required to comply with the Safe Water Act, customers are at least informed.
Question: What people and species are most vulnerable in West Virginia because of the state of West Virginia’s rivers, streams, creeks, groundwater and lakes?
Crowe: The people who are closest to industrial development. Because of that lack of enforcement, and regulations constantly being degraded, that puts people at risk.
Some species are more sensitive to water degradation. The Eastern brook trout and Eastern hellbender are two. Those that require clean, pure water are going to be most vulnerable. Brook trout need a certain pH level. As streams become more acidic from mine drainage, construction, erosion, and more, those more vulnerable species are the first to be impacted. They’re like the canary in the coal mine. If a stream doesn’t have a diverse population of very Benthic macroinvertebrates, we can tell the health of the stream. (Crowe explained Benthic macroinvertebrates “are like little stream bugs. They’re small diverse critters that supply the food for larger fish. If absent from the stream, we know the stream is at risk of future decline”).
We want to look at the watershed as a whole. We want to make sure we’re protecting those headwater streams that are feeding those rivers. Where there not be as many streams, then the habitat downstream isn’t going to be as healthy.
There was a recent attack on the Clean Water Act. Efforts were made to try to change the definition of water. Headwater streams would no longer be protected. This goes back to the first question. What’s the greatest threat? The rollback of those protections.
Question: What are the primary efforts you are undertaking in your work to ensure the safety of West Virginia’s watersheds?
Crowe: Our primary efforts are centered around making sure we are using science in decisions that impact water policy. For instance, I talked about the attempt to change the definition of water. That’s not sound science. At all. Any changes that impact our water policy must be based on science. So, we try to bring science to the table. We monitor what’s going on at state and federal levels. There are also some proposals to change the definition of water in West Virginia. The EPA allows states to determine how they implement the Safe Water Drinking Act. The state is required to revisit the standards every three years. The state can decide where it wants to implement standards, and they must be as strict as those followed by the EPA. In 2015, the EPA updated standards on contaminants in our surface waters. We recommended to the state that we adopt those standards. So, are now in the process of getting those standards updated. Of course, industry opposes those updates because it means they wouldn’t be allowed to put as many pollutants in the rivers.
We try to educate the public about what decisions that political leaders are making, how it would impact our public health and the health of our waters.
We provide technical information. We try to distill information so someone in the general public doesn’t need a background in science to understand how water quality affects their lives and way of living.
The overarching goal of our organization is to protect water – to ensure that it is drinkable, fishable and swimmable now and into the future. We have many programs to help achieve those goals. We have our Public Lands Campaign, based on the belief that if you protect the land, you protect the water. When any decisions that are being made about our public lands, we educate the public and give them an opportunity to bring their voice into the decision-making process. Sometimes these decisions are being make and people don’t know about it. Our Safe Water Campaign is focused on working with utilities, after the 2014 Elk River Spill. We work to get the public involved in their local water utility to help protect their drinking water. The water company is responsible for the intake, but the whole community is responsible for what goes in upstream.
We also train citizens how to be watchdogs of their local streams and creeks that run through their back yards. We teach them to monitor and report anything suspicious in those streams.
We also review permits and policy decisions. We work to strengthen regulations so that we can get the most protection that we can for our water resources. We work to translate that information to the public, so they have an opportunity to weigh in and know their voices are part of the decision-making process.
Finally, we recently kicked off a climate change campaign to educate the public on the impacts of the changing climate in this region including extreme weather/flood events, especially as they impact local watersheds and communities. Increased flood events can overwhelm water treatment systems which is why increasing storm water management infrastructure is so important. Our goal of the climate campaign is to encourage our decision-makers to implement smart climate policy initiatives on both the state and federal level.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2019