Unsung Volunteers Take Up the Causes of Babbling Brooks

Environmental Commentary by Tim Rowland

Warm Springs Run begins in a logged-over marsh near a trucking terminal in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Eleven miles later it empties into the Potomac River, 170 miles northwest of the Chesapeake Bay. The creek, hardly more than a dozen feet wide, will inspire no poets, and it supports no canoeists or fishermen to champion its cause.

Through its brief existence from source to mouth, the creek is subjected to a number of indignities — fuel spills, erosion, ham-handed dredging, failing septic tanks, fertilizers and, quite literally, the contents of kitchen sinks. Many years ago, the town of Bath thought it expedient to run a sewer main smack down the middle of the creek bed; it was easy, no rights of way or ditch-digging equipment required.

This is what the Chesapeake Bay is up against — minor tributaries that lack the fan base of major rivers or wild, scenic streams, but whose waters, taken together, significantly impact the downstream habitat.

But just because they’re small doesn’t mean that these streams don’t have their defenders. In fact, the Bay has a somewhat invisible army working in its defense. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, there are 600 to 700 watershed associations that watch over streams like these. They are mostly staffed by volunteers who keep tabs on water quality, fight pollutants and get the word out that every babbling brook makes a difference.

The Warm Springs Watershed Association has planted hundreds of trees along the creek banks and constantly monitors the water for contaminants. A few miles to the east, the Sleepy Creek Watershed Association keeps tabs on a small river of the same name, and to the west, the Cacapon Institute — formed to protect the wild and scenic Cacapon River from development — does the same.

The associations’ work frequently overlaps from stream to stream, and associations protecting larger rivers frequently spawn smaller associations to guard the big river’s smaller tributaries. They work in partnership with conservancies, Riverkeepers, foresters, conservation districts and other environmental concerns, all with different turf but common goals.

Taken as a whole, associations help form a protective net over the Bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed, one that’s maintained largely by volunteers, many of whom are retirees, teachers or nature junkies. Often far away from big industry and factory farms, these small associations have their own set of challenges, said Kate Lehman, a Unitarian Universalist minister and president of the Warm Spring Watershed Association.

Away from the metro areas, sound stream management is not always understood, or even if it is, it’s frequently ignored. Lehman cited a recent clearcut of forestland on the flank of the run, one that will lead to more runoff and sediment. With few regulations in place, economics generally trump the environment. “There is no long-range picture of how it will affect the stream or the Bay, it’s a question of whether I can make money off of this now,” Lehman said.

And for small-budget organizations, there are the frustrations that come from knowing something’s wrong, but not having the wherewithal to do much about it. Fecal coliform levels in Warm Springs Run spiked late last year, but without means to track down the source, the best that can be done is to keep watch to see that the problem doesn’t escalate.

But there’s progress, too. In June, West Virginia signed on to the updated Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement aimed at reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, meaning more help for localities, both in terms of money and expertise.

And the WSWA is taking its message to schools, helped by an engaged group of science teachers and the fact that the creek runs through the local high school campus.

To the community, the run was seen as half-dead zone, half-breeding ground for pests. So science classes went out and began lifting rocks in the creek, which exposed salamanders, turtles and frogs. Informational kiosks went up explaining to parents that water snakes were, in fact, harmless, and that mosquitoes’ indiscretions might be forgivable if we think of them as food for inhabitants of the wetlands’ ecosystem.

On a recent afternoon, a bald eagle soared over the highland separating the watersheds of Warm Springs Run and Sleepy Creek. Two decades ago, when sewage and industry waste was still being pumped directly into the run, there were no eagles. Nor would students have found aquatic life under the rocks. Progress is slow, but it’s happening. With the work of the watershed associations and their compatriots, other species will return as well, and life downstream will be rejuvenated. For the unsung volunteers who devote untold time to these groups, that’s glory enough.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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