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WVU faculty receive $125,000 to tap into water research issues in West Virginia

Originally published in Mountaineer E-News
July 28, 2021

Pictured left to right: Carol Arantes, Eric Bowen, Christopher Russoniello and Charlie Shobe.

Pictured left to right: Carol Arantes, Eric Bowen, Christopher Russoniello and Charlie Shobe.

Four West Virginia University researchers will take strategic approaches to studying the Mountain State’s vast water resources from aquatic life to the economic effects of environmental restoration and measuring the sources of erosion to dealing with acid mine drainage in short- and long-term situations.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, housed at WVU, said that this year’s appropriation totaled $125,000, an increase of the previous year’s $92,000. While small relative to the $5-7 million that WVWRI brings in through competitive grants each year, the funds are critical for engaging young faculty in water research and for nurturing new and larger research opportunities.  

“We explore new research areas and we’re always looking for new talent to solve new problems—or even old problems,” he said.

Caroline Arantes, assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design said this study will help identify aquatic organisms and freshwater systems in West Virginia are likely to suffer because of climate change. 

“Changes such as rainfall, temperature and water flow will be taken into consideration for the project,” Arantes said. “The project will also provide useful tools to agencies that are tasked with managing the biodiversity of freshwater systems.”

Eric Bowen, research assistant professor of the John Chambers School of Business and Economics will study the economic impacts of environmental restoration.

“Our research will produce a readily generalizable way to measure the economic impact of acid mine drainage remediation in West Virginia’s watersheds,” Bowen said. “We think this research will provide a useful tool to assess the benefits of the state’s watershed remediation policy efforts.” 

Christopher J. Russoniello, assistant professor of geology in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences has been analyzing the effects of acid mine drainage and its lingering presence within Appalachian streams. Significant progress has been made in the clean-up effort with the installing of “passive” AMD remediation systems that have been proven to be both cost- and environmentally effective tools. 

“This project will explore how the results of these systems vary as they age over seasons and storms in order to provide a scientifically-based understanding of the relation between flow and chemistry and to improve the design of future systems,” Russoniello said. 

Charles Shobe, assistant professor of geology at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences has observed that the over-delivery of sediment to streams within the Appalachian plateau is a widespread problem and affects large portions of the Deckers Creek watershed, especially in places where the channel has been straightened for flood control. By measuring the erosion of streambanks, Shobe hopes to find ways to mitigate the sediment’s harmful effects.

“Erosion like this can lead to a drastic decrease in water quality and the aquatic habitats,” Shobe said. 

Ziemkiewicz said the grants allow researchers to take a strategic approach toward resolving water issues. 

“We need to keep monitoring to make sure the restored streams stay that way. We need to find out what works and what doesn’t and identify remedies if needed, Ziemkiewicz said. “If we do our jobs, the issues are resolved quickly.”

For example, about 10 years ago, dissolved solids or salts in the Monongahela River were growing each year, to the point where municipal water systems would need to restrict intakes or build extraordinarily expensive additions to their treatment systems. WVWRI initiated a project that identified the source of the salts and worked with Industry to implement an inexpensive solution to the problem.

“It’s worked for 11 years behind the scenes,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Thanks to our ongoing 3RQ monitoring program supported by the Colcom foundation we haven’t had an exceedance of the drinking water standard for dissolved solids since the program was implemented in 2010. Implementation cost almost nothing and the benefits were immediate and long term.”  

When the MCHM spill occurred in Charleston in 2014, WRI quickly mobilized to secure emergency funding and deployed a team for sample collection. Through data obtained, WVWRI advised the state about MCHM concentrations in the rivers, evaporation rates and dispersion. WVWRI concluded that while MCHM evaporated rapidly in open waters, it would remain in closed, piped distributions and would require flushing those lines-a time consuming process but one that minimized public risk.   

More recently, the WVWRI worked with the WVDEP to develop a comprehensive acid mine drainage treatment system for Muddy Creek, which had previously contributed half of the acid mine drainage to the Cheat River. The Muddy Creek treatment plant went online in March 2018. And, as a result, the Cheat River and Cheat Lake are some of the best fisheries in the state, Ziemkiewicz said. 

West Virginia leads the nation in restoring watersheds that were damaged by historic acid mine drainage. “It’s easy to find problems,” said Melissa O’Neal, associate director of the WVWRI. “We focus on developing practical solutions that are effective and efficient. Thanks to our close relationships with state and Federal regulatory agencies, we have great partnerships that are essential for developing and implementing solutions.”

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 3, U.S. Department of Energy and regulated industries serve on WVWRI’s Advisory Committee and identify statewide water research priorities and select grant awardees. 

The research is funded by grant from the U.S. Geological Survey to each state’s Water Research Institute. The new projects should begin as soon as September. 

Read the article in Mountaineer E-News.