STUDIES OF THE FLOODING
At least four studies of various aspects of the flooding are underway. In addition, Gov. Bob Wise has established a Disaster Recovery Board, which is looking at how to rebuild and flood proof the flood-ravaged southern counties.
In response to questions and allegations about the connection between mining and flooding, Gov. Wise asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to organize a study shortly after the July 8 floods. That group, with representatives from the Division of Forestry and several other agencies, is headed by Ed Griffith, a long-time DEP mining official. It is expected to report by Dec. 30.
The DEP group is examining two areas with mining and some timbering, and possibly a third control area that didn't appear to have much mining or timbering. Seng Creek and Scrabble Creek are being examined closely, with surveys of high-water marks and measurements of cross-sections of the creek. The area of Seng Creek near the homes, like many in the flooded areas, had been cleaned out and altered after the flood. However, the area between the valley fill and the homes is of most interest to the study group, and that had not been altered much. The size of the valley fills, mined and timbered areas is also being surveyed.
The data gathered by the on-the-ground investigators will be fed into a computer modeling program. Knowing the amount of mined and timbered area, the computer will calculate how much runoff should have come off the area. This will be compared to what actually happened. Since the exact amount of rain in those two areas is only a rough estimate, the computer will produce estimations of runoff for different amounts of rainfall. DEP officials hope that the modeling program can help forecast the amount of runoff from other areas with mining and timbering.
The second study is being done by a conglomerate of 26 state and federal agencies. It actually began in 2000 with a federal grant through the office of Sen. Robert Byrd. The money was given to the Corps of Engineers, but the study is being organized by the state Soil Conservation Agency.
The goal is a comprehensive master plan aimed at preventing and reducing flood damage. For the first time, officials hope, the state will have a long-term program, instead of knee jerk reactions to individual disasters. In addition, the group hopes to coordinate the work of all agencies, instead of stumbling over one another. In a few months, Soil Conservation will establish a web site available both to the public and the 26 agencies. At first, the plan will be just for the six counties flooded this summer: Boone, Fayette, McDowell, Mercer, Raleigh and Wyoming. But eventually it could become a model for the entire state, as well as for the Appalachian region. John Pack at Soil Conservation believes it would be the first, proactive and wholistic approach to flooding in the region. It is expected to be finished by April 15, 2002.
Among the items on the agenda:
* Inventory the flood plains, the land use, past floods, storm water damages.
* Define the existing state and federal programs for modifying flooding, warning of flooding, flood-proofing buildings, and relocating towns.
* Examine how to maintain natural and beneficial floodplain environments, including constructed wetlands, greenbelts, riverside trains and how these can be encouraged through legislation and regulation.
* Determine what new kinds of programs should be implemented, including updated flood maps, decision-making information for landowners in flood plains, enforcement of flood plain ordinances, more watershed groups to monitor land use along streams and eliminate debris.
* Once the best plan for flood protection has been designed, the group will look at legislation, funding and education necessary for implementation.
The group had its first meeting at Twin Falls State Park Sept. 25-26. It plans to hold a series of public meetings in the six counties this fall. Pack explained that the final plan will not restore individual creeks. What it will provide is a way for citizens and public officials to fix their streams and flood proof their communities.
One activity John Pack would like to encourage is watershed groups. These are people who live on a stream and can monitor it daily. They clean their streams, control the kind of debris that blocked bridges and culverts during the flood, and even do some stream restoration. Pack believes that the active watershed group on Paint Creek, helped prevent some flooding there. Paint is about two miles east of Armstrong Creek in Fayette County. It was considerably less damaged than Armstrong, though it was on the edge of the July 8 storm, making it somewhat difficult to measure the effects of the watershed group. Pack said that the Rosgen Classification System was used at Paint Creek to stabilize the banks and prevent erosion.
Developed by Dave Rosgen in the early 1990s, this classifies streams by channel width, channel cutting, sediment, bank erosion, flood plain levels and other characteristics. Rosgen allows researchers to interpret channel geometry and determine if the channel is in equilibrium with its flow regime. Because bankfull flows have the most influence on shaping and maintaining channels, there is a relationship between the dimensions of the stream channel and the bankfull flow. Restorers decide what class of stream is best for the elements in its drainage area, and what kind of stream would have the least sediment build up, bank erosion and flooding. Sometimes the stream bed will be raised and widened and banks stabilized stabilized. For a case study of a stream restoration using the Rosgen system: in metropolitan Maryland.
John Pack said they were pleased to see that the recently repaired banks of Paint Creek did not erode in the July storms. Recently, Bill McGhee of Mullens decided to form a citizens group to monitor streams and the two rivers that feed into the center of Mullens. They will be on the lookout for piles of trash like the obstacles that blocked bridges and worsened the flood. They are also looking at land use issues along the streams, including mining and timbering. (see story)
The U.S. Geological Survey is doing its own small study of flooding in the Pax area, as well as assisting other agencies, such as FEMA, the Office of Surface Mining and the Environmental Protection Agency, and participating in the 26-agency task force. Known for their rigid scientific methods, USGS scientists often would like to jump in and study new phenomena, but are restricted by their funding structure. Usually, they much partner with another agency that requests their services. "It keeps us honest," said Ron Evaldi of the West Virginia USGS office.
USGS maintains a network of 107 water-level gages in streams throughout the state. It has several decades of data, which is used to determine such things as where to put a dam to control flooding and how much water will be available from a river for a public water system. The data from the rain gages as well as measurements of high water marks by USGS staff and contractors, was used to help FEMA redo the flood plain insurance maps for Oceana and Smithers. In Smithers, the flood levels were nearly the same as in the original map, which was done about 20 years earlier. In Oceana, the levels were about two feet lower than that of the 1979 map.
Ironically, the USGS in West Virginia had just completed an update of its flooding formulas, "Estimating Magnitude and Frequency of Peak Discharges for Rural, Unregulated, Streams in West Virginia." Done at the request of the state Division of Highways, the study helps determine flood levels before public works projects are built. "Many engineering projects are built within or adjacent to flood-prone areas," the study states. "Information on past flooding and estimates of the magnitude and frequency of future floods are critical to the safe and economical design of hydraulic structures such as bridges, culverts, dams and flood dikes." The study updates the equations for estimating the size of peak discharges. However, the study cautions that the formulas can't be used in areas with large amounts of mining: "Equations are not applicable to heavily mined areas if excessive runoff is diverted into or outside the basin, retained along strip benches, or retained underground."
USGS is also working with several other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Surface Mining, on a comprehensive evaluation of valley fills and mountaintop removal. The environmental impact statement was ordered in 1999 as part of the first settlement agreement in the far-reaching Bragg v Robertson case over valley fills. Draft reports on parts of the study have been completed, but it is still ongoing. As part of the USGS work, it recently produced "Reconnaissance of Stream Geomorphology, Low Streamflow, and Stream Temperature in the Mountaintop Coal-Mining Region, Southern West Virginia, 1999-2000." (available from the USGS office in Charleston). The study team gathered data from 54 stream gages below valley fills and in unmined valleys in five river basins.
After the flood, USGS scientists had been eager to look at the effects of the flood on Seng Creek. The EIS study looked at gradual changes in the streams below valley fills. The flood, on the other hand, would be an episodic event--like that forming the Grand Canyon, only on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately, Evaldi said, by the time USGS staff got to Seng Creek, bulldozers had wiped away the flood markers and erosion patterns necessary for a study.
USGS scientists did fly over the flooded areas shortly after the event. They said that the valley fills with mature vegetation held up well. However, those still underway, with little or no cover, had severe erosion. Evaldi has determined that one reason for the velocity of the waters was that the storm stalled over the higher elevations, with rain cells reforming and recharging and continuing to drop a large amount of rain in certain areas. Much of the water came down in the headwaters of the stream. Still, he was surprised that just 5 inches of rain could do so much damage.
The Environmental Impact Statement study of flooding was released in draft form early this year. It looked at three valley fills, two of them at Arch Coal's Samples mine in Raleigh County. The EIS found that the valley fill above Seng Creek could increase flooding up to 13 percent. Aerial photos, as well as those taken at the fills shortly after the flood, show severe erosion. In addition, the rushing water cut a new gully alongside the fill. One reason could be that the mine has changed the drainage patterns of the mountain and valleys, according to DEP inspectors. They examined the area above Seng Creek after it flooded in late May 2000. They found that before mining, Seng Creek had received about 25 percent of the drainage. Now it receives 40 percent.
The EIS flood study group, which includes the Corps of Engineers, USGS and OSM, expanded its work after the flood. USGS flagged high water marks below some fill areas, which will be studied.
In addition to the four comprehensive studies, two smaller ones are underway as well. The National Park Service embarked on a broad study of damages to the New River Gorge, which it manages. Besides inventorying the damages to park facilities, it is looking at damage to the fish and plants in the streams and the trees and plants on the mountain sides. It was able to produce some reports within six weeks of the flood. See
Finally, the Fayette County Commission voted in August to undertake a small, and hopefully quick, look at whether timbering and mining contributed to the flooding. Commissioner Matthew Wender recommended a study to answer the question on most residents' minds. He wanted to be able to say whether there was just a lot of rain--or did alterations of the hillsides increase the amount of water pouring down on so many Fayette communities.