How will the coming years change our rivers?  This question is at the intersection of economic development and environmental conservation.  In “The Environmental Costs of Economic Growth” Professor Barry Commoner says, “This is a complex issue …, it therefore suffers somewhat from a high ratio of concern to fact."  In addition, the issue is one which happens not to coincide with the domain of an established academic discipline.”  The question is also open to a dynamic stakeholder debate with unforeseen issues surely coming to bear.   

How to shed light on such a fluid question?  Our answer is “The Future of Our Rivers.”  This interview series presents the opinions of people on questions like “How will our rivers fare over the next 20 years?” “What ought to be done to protect our rivers?” and “Are you optimistic?”   We think that these opinions represent the personal reality of the interviewees, and that conservation depends on a real appreciation of different perspectives.

The first face-to-face interviews (below) were conducted by Peter Maille and present the opinions of knowledgeable stakeholders from the environmental protection community—


Bob Livingston, Grant County Sanitarian  

bulletJeremy Muller, WV Rivers Coalition Executive Director
bulletNeil Gillies, Cacapon Institute Executive Director 

To follow will be interviews with representatives from the political community, developers, farmers, business, and others.  Please consider joining the discussion by answering a similar set of questions -- just Click here to get started.  After verifying your responses we'll add your comments to this page.


Bob Livingston.  Mr. Livingston started coming to this area in the 60’s for rock climbing and caving.  Eventually he came here from Colorado and became a partner in the rock climbing school at Seneca Rocks and he worked for DNR in aquaculture.  In the mid-1970’s he took a job a County Sanitarian for Grant County, where he remains to this day.  He holds a BS from WVU in wildlife resources.

How important is water, specifically in this area of the Northern Potomac Highlands?

Water is certainly important for personal use, agriculture, and tourism.  Which leads to economic benefits.

So over the next 20 years what do you see as the biggest changes in the landscape of Grant County, the Northern Potomac Headwaters…

There is a lot of growth to the east of us, and it is travelling this way currently maybe approaching Hampshire County.  There is also the Corridor H which people expect to be finished.  I’d expect to see more demands upon the land for residences and establishments.  More concentrated growth in areas that haven’t had it before particularly around interchanges near the four lane highway there will be people wanting to put in convenience stores, hotels, restaurants, this sort of thing.  Sometimes on-site sewage disposal is not adequate or suitable for that type of thing so then they are talking treatment plants, which discharge into the local streams.  That is something that I think needs to be looked at in the future…who is going to run these plants? 

So if that is what it is going to look like in the next 20 years then what do you think are the greatest threats or challenges for our water resources and rivers?

The on-site septic systems are already being looked at on a regular basis now and as new construction occurs.  Older systems are repaired as they are identified…as the people come forward. 

I would say that the pressures for having larger-type treatment plants discharging straight into streams which also maybe considered trout streams by DEP.  These have more stringent treatment requirements, tertiary treatment.  I think it is better to have some planning done with possibly another service district maintaining the facilities as opposed to private individuals trying to all maintain their own and situation of that nature. 

So the plants discharge directly into the streams.  All the time?

There might not be much discharge at night but there would be during the busy times of the day.  The DEP gives waste load allocations and they will allow so much discharge to go into a stream until it meets the theoretical maximum and then they say “no more.”  So I would expect there would be a scramble for waste load allocations on some of these creeks where some of these interchanges may be. 

And you are worried about a lack of planning for these facilities?

Well it seems like everyone reacts after the fact rather than trying to plan beforehand and of course it is difficult to do if you don’t have specific plans submitted by someone.  But that has been kind of the history it seems like, that communities react after things get bad rather than proactively before they get bad. 

So aside from that can you think of any other thing that may be affecting our rivers as a result of this growth?

The poultry industry appears to have kind of max-ed out around here but of course there are the concerns of runoff from agricultural fields into the creeks.  I would expect probably to see the cattle industry a little more under control as far as having the cattle out in the middle of the stream.  I think they will start looking at maybe having buffers between the shore and the cattle feedlots and this sort of thing. 

I would expect to see more recreational demands on the rivers in the area.  This area is very popular with tourism and I see no reason why it is going to get less so. 

It that a threat a challenge…?

It think it is a challenge…to try to make sure that the area is as nice in the future as it is now.  Try to keep things from not getting any worse. 

So given all this, is there anything we can or should do?

A lot of times these things need to be initiated by county commissions in conjunction with other agencies such as Region 8.  I’m not sure about how one would go about starting interest in this or planning in this.  They already have a pretty good water system in the county.  It would be nice to see public sewer in some of these small communities, in some of these quote development areas.  Places like Maysville.  There might be any number of entrepreneurs who’d want to start a business and they are going to be basically kept from that because of the lack of space for any sort of on-site disposal.  So, I think that having central facilities would help to increase business opportunities in the county.

Can you give us an idea of what you mean when you say “planning”?

I’ve only been involved in planning to a limited extent with Grant County’s Planning Commission.  I sat through a year’s process trying to develop a subdivision ordinance for the County and there was so much opposition to it that the County Commissioners kind of reversed themselves and voted it down.  Planning Commissions are good but they have to have the support of the people in the County.  And when they see things like what they consider to be zoning issues they…they are not very receptive to that.  So that’s a drawback and that is one of the hindrances I think to take proactive looks at things. 

Can you think of any other “hindrances”?

Lack of funding in general.  Finding funding sources.  And again, I’m not intimately involved with finding grants.  I’m kind of speaking from the periphery of some of these more central agencies and issues.  My work is a little more specialized with specific things involving individuals.

I do the floodplain work for the County.  That’s an issue, as more people want to develop recreational properties they are going to have to confront this floodplain stuff so that FEMA is satisfied.  If there is an interchange at the four lane highway and its got that shaded gray area alongside it businesses that locate there are going to have to jump through some extra hoops in that respect.  FEMA says that that is the cost of doing business in the floodplain.  Some of these engineering studies are somewhat expensive when you do the hydrological studies, do the computer models, calculate the actual height of a 100 year event.

And finally, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of our water resources?

I am optimistic.  There are enough organizations that will keep the issue visible to politicians and industry.  These issues are not going away.  There are enough watershed organizations, outfits… doing valuable work that will help us end up with a balance in the middle.

Thank you very much!

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Jeremy Muller.  Since May of 1999 Jeremy has served as the Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (www.wvrivers.org).  Before that he worked in heritage tourism in the Pittsburgh area based on the steel mills and coalmines and helped to develop river access, hiking and biking trails and conservation easements within that framework.  Mr. Muller grew up in the Pittsburgh area and he is an English major from the University of New Hampshire.  His affinity for the outdoors comes from the time he spent at his parents summer home on Lake Huron.

Relative to some of the other areas you’ve been in how would you describe this area’s water resources and their importance?

Phenomenal.  Again, having grown up very close to this area, two hours away, but never been there, when I moved here I was astonished at a number of things about the water resources.  One being the quality of it.  I mean so much of this water is in good shape that you don’t have to do much to it to make it swimmable, fishable, drinkable—that’s a rarity.  I come from Pittsburgh with three rivers you stay away from and that’s not the case here.  The other thing is the variety.  That you have phenomenal cold water streams holding native trout populations and at the same time there is some of the best white water in the East Coast if not the entire country.  So, sort of across the board just phenomenal. 

Could you say something about its importance?

Yes, I think unfortunately the importance is underestimated.  It’s really not understood how important water is to a rural state like this.  Particularly when communities are separated by such vast mountains and topography.  You aren’t going to be able to pipe water from one watershed to the other necessarily.  You have to look at the local resource and how that is going to sustain the life that’s there.  Both human and other.  And I think that because the resources are so good here they’ve been taken for granted.  But I think if you talk to people that visit the State they sort of marvel at what you have and say  “Don’t let that get to the situation that we got to.”  Whether you are talking about the Great Lakes right now which are four feet lower than they’ve been in history or you’re talking about rivers that you no longer can drink from or swim in.  Its bad elsewhere and while we have some problem areas here on the whole, the amount of miles of good water here is just really remarkable. 

What do you perceive as this Region’s greatest changes in next 20 years?

Well I think that it is going to have to come to grips with the changing economy.  It’s probably two-fold.  It’s probably the changing economy and it’s probably going to be an influx of people.  And they may be related and they may not be. 

But obviously with the economy, we’ve gone from the resource extractive mining town/mill town mentality which is what I’m familiar with from the Pittsburgh Region as well.  The Pittsburgh Region went through the trouble in the late 70s and 80s.  And it took them 15 to 20 years to figure out how they were going to deal with it.  And it seems like right now our leaders are starting to understand that there might be a change in our economy ahead.  But I don’t think they are planning for it.  They are still trying to hold on, as is the norm, you try to hold on to what you know.  But they are doing that, I’m afraid, in a way that does not open themselves up to the possibilities of change. 

I think the other end is an influx of people coming from areas like we did, DC and Pittsburgh, who realize with the mobile society that we are now, with the lack of a need of a sit-down business operation, that we can do so much through the Web, cell phones, etc., people are going to be moving here for the quality of life.  Because so much of it is untouched.  Because property values are so cheap relatively.  It’s already happening.  The amount of people that I know now who telecommute are exponentially greater than the folks in the Pittsburgh area and I think that we are going to have to figure out as a State “How do we deal with that?”  We should encourage it but what do we do about sprawl?  About development in some of these areas where previously there hasn’t been any.  That is where we are going to have to bring up words that people don’t like to hear such as planning and zoning. 

Can you give me an idea of how those changes are going to affect the water specifically?

I think the change in the economy could be a really good one.  I think that if we start getting away from the coal mining that a lot of problems that are developed and created through that whether its acid mine drainage, complete burial of a stream, those won’t be happening as frequently.  And that is a positive.  But when you have an influx of people you have a drain on your water resources.  You need water for communities.  You need water for people.  Not only to live and drink and bath but to recreate.  And so those resources are going to be in a bit more demand.  And it’s going to be a fine line that folks are going to have to develop, let alone walk, which is “Ok, how do we deal with it? Where do we have development?  Do we want to allow it up on mountain tops and creeks because that is where people want to go?”  But it is going to be costly and very difficult to get folks the amenities that they’re used to up there.  And of course you don’t have a ton of water on the top of a mountain.  

That gets at the next question which is “In light of those changes what do you think should be done?”    

I think that we need to step back and take a good look at where the State is going to go.  I don’t think that’s happened.  I don’t really see that a long range approach has been taken.  It continues to be, “We need to fight for these jobs right here and right now.”  That’s not to discount the importance of jobs right here and right now.  But if you are doing it at the expense of looking 25 to 50 years down the road then I think that we are not approaching it in a way that we should.  And so I think that we have to look and say if you are going to grow and, while it sounds like everybody wants the State to grow, then we have to look and say “Ok, where? Where is the most appropriate place for that to go based on your infrastructure that exists or natural resources that exist, that are going to aid or support that kind of growth?”  And that needs to be taken into account.  You probably don’t want large-scale development on the edge of your wilderness areas.  Ok so what do we need to do about that?  Is that where you get into planning and zoning?  And I think that those tools are really good for helping to structure and direct where you want the State to go.  When you look at the Eastern Panhandle that has had very good growth, approaching 30% in the last decade, that’s good.  But, you talk to with people out there and there are some bads that come with it.  So that is where you have to start dealing with it-- “Ok, what is the problem? Are property values increasing?  Is that a problem or is that a benefit?”  You need good roadways and infrastructure.  Problems with congestion.  Let’s look at this…  We want people to come here but we also want them to be happy when they come here.  And we want the folks that are here now to be happy when people come.  Not, “Oh damn, those people are building a house on the edge of my property” kind of thing. 

And I think that you really have to look at some of the tools that have been used elsewhere.  That’s one of the interesting things about it all.  It’s not recreating the wheel—it exists.  There are States, I think Vermont is probably the best template for West Virginia.  It is mostly rural.  They have a high standard of living.  And there is a fair amount of telecommuting going on.  I think there are a lot of similarities there.  It’s got pretty nasty terrain, which West Virginia also has.  So I think that that is important.  That is part of the problem that most folks feel “we’ve got to do this, we’re the only ones who have faced this, what the hell are we going to do?”  And that is really not true.  There are plenty of examples around.  It just takes some time, effort, and resources, to say, “This is what we are going to do.”  “We are going to look at other examples and we are going to set a plan for us 50 years down the road.” 

So, would you call yourself an optimist?

By nature I am a cynical pessimist.  But I’ll be honest with you.  I think that West Virginia is in a really good position. I would say that 30 to 35 of the States would want to be in West Virginia’s shoes.  Of having the ability to grow.  Of having the resources that people want to live near, recreate on, etc… and an opportunity, really, to make their future.  With the decline of the historical industries, you have this opportunity to say “Ok let’s define ourselves.  Who do we want to be and let’s make that happen.”  And so I think that the position the State’s in now is very positive.  It is only limited by itself, to be honest with you, and by the people who are running it.  That is probably the only optimistic thing I’ve said in the last 5 years.  I’m typically not an optimistic person but I think that things are in a very good position if we make some right choices.  If we make some bad choices then we are not going to be any better off in 20 years. 

Thank you very much!

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Neil Gillies.  Neil has a BS in biology and an MS in environmental science.  He has been on the staff of the Cacapon Institute for six years as Science Director and Executive Director. 

So Neil, tell me in a nutshell what you see as the most important changes, either in the Potomac Highlands in general or your county, in the landscape over the next 20 years.

Development.  Development will change the landscape. 

What kind of development?

Housing.  Primarily housing developments, second homes, retirement homes.

Anything special about the development?

It will be uncontrolled.

What do you mean by uncontrolled?

Government will not be controlling it in any effective way. In terms of where it goes or how it is done.

Do you have a sense for the magnitude?

Hampshire is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and one of the fastest growing in the country.  Ten percent per year, so every 7 years we have doubled our population.

Given that then what do you see as the major threats to the health of our rivers?

One of the biggest threats is uncontrolled development.  The failure to place developments in places where there will be the least damage to both the viewscape and the environment in general. 

Another threat is obviously the existing agriculture industry, if it continues in its direction of intensification without much in the way of control.  

People tend to have concerns over water quality and that is important.  But we also have reason to worry about water quantity.  Both intensive agriculture and housing development have the potential to draw more water from the ground than is replaced though precipitation.  Since flow in rivers and streams is maintained by groundwater, a lowering of the water table reduces flow in rivers.

Could you explain to me what it is about development that is so threatening? 

It’s not reversible.  Typically, once areas are developed into housing or industry they never go back to anything else where virtually everything else people do can and does. 

And what is the impact of development on rivers?

Increased sedimentation.  It can also add a lot of nutrients from excess use of fertilizers on yards and just generally increase the amount of petroleum-based materials that are put on our land.  More roads.  More cars. 

And how do more roads and cars impact the rivers? 

More impervious land cover.  More runoff that goes more directly into streams. Runoff from roads often has oils included in it. 

If that is your view of the future then what do you think we can or should do?

I think we should create an economic climate in which our existing farm population can remain in farming and in an economically viable position.  And we should help direct the farming economy so it will go [towards] sustainable farming, which means low impact farming is the desired way to do it as opposed to high intensive factory farming. 

How does that relate to the biggest threat that you saw that was development?

The most developable lands are agricultural lands.  Farming isn’t profitable enough.  The rationale for farmers to remain in farming is diminished year by year by year.  So the idea is that you take the most developable land off the market because farmers are farming with it – then that land will not be open for development.

Anything else that can or should be done to address the development threat?

Zoning... Comprehensive plans ... effective comprehensive plans that direct where development will go, that reflect the common desire in the community to retain the rural, pastoral character of this area.

Anything else?

In terms of containing the threat there really aren’t very many things.  You either tie up the land…you tie up the land in ways that discourage development one way or another.  One of them is with farms-- with active,  profitable farms that are going to continue farming.  The other one is through zoning that restricts where development can go.  Those are the only ways I know of.

Thank you very much!

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