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The Future of Water


Jason Horne collects readings

Written by Diana Mazzella
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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On the side of Stewartstown Road in Morgantown, W.Va., across from a hair salon is a gate to a wide field on a hillside. The snowy patch of land beside a creek is part of a project the scale and intensity of which has never been done before, anywhere. It’s a set of 22 monitoring stations that collect data on weather and water in the West Run watershed. Take the road one way, and you’ll find a massive shopping center. Go the other way, and you’ll pass West Virginia University’s Animal Science Farm. Within and around the watershed are homes, forest, acid mine drainage and lots of traffic.

Fritz Petersen, a doctoral student in biohydrology, went to each monitoring site every Tuesday last year to collect water samples. He was looking for the presence of the bacteria E. coli to trace its concentrations within the watershed. Petersen, of Pretoria, South Africa, says that when scientists have studied watersheds in the past, they have greatly focused on isolated urban or forest or agricultural areas.

But water doesn’t stay inside lines.

Jason Hubbart, director of the Institute of Water Security and Science at WVU, said that there is a lack of high-resolution real-world monitoring to address intermingled land use practices and pollution and prepare for a changing climate, particularly in West Virginia.

Jason Horne, wearing waders, a green Eddie Bauer coat and a knit cap bearing the Flying WV, is halfway through the six-hour weekly trek at site No. 13, which has one of six climate stations in the network as well as a water bubbler and a stilling well, which measure the stream’s flow and water level. The master’s hydrology student from Dayton, Ohio, was two weeks into grad school on that snowy day, and he’ll be making this trip every Tuesday from now on.

When Petersen first took Horne out to the sites and showed him how to puta probe in the stream to collect readings from temperature to pressure to the level of acidity, Horne thought it was kind of boring.

“Many folks think ‘Well, we collect a lot of data already,’ but what we have found is that we don’t have enough, especially in complex terrain because everything changes so quickly.”—JASON HUBBART, director of the Institute of Water Security and Science 

“But then I started to really realize that when you dip this probe in the water, it tells a story,” Horne said. “It’s not just the story of this stream that you see in front of you running. ...It tells you a story about all the chemicals and really about the landscape, which is amazing.”

Hubbart came to WVU on the first day of 2016 to direct the new Institute of Water Security and Science. Within months, he would see up close one of the major threats from climate change in the region.

“The big thing that happened shortly after my arrival was the flooding and loss of 23 lives down south in West Virginia,” Hubbart said. “That drew national if not international attention. So, the flooding issue was something that we got engaged in immediately.”

There is not a specific climate model for West Virginia. But there are general predictions from historic data: It will be hotter and it will rain more and the rainfall will be more variable. And with the rain — because of the state’s tight-knit mountains — comes an increase in the risk of flooding. It’s a reminder that while climate change is often discussed as a global issue, its effects are local.

“Many folks think ‘Well, we collect a lot of data already,’ but what we have found is that we don’t have enough, especially in complex terrain because everything changes so quickly,” Hubbart said. “For example in West Virginia, you can drive down one valley and it’s snowing this time of year and you’ll kind of go around the corner and it’s no longer snowing or it’s raining or something like that. Things change very, very quickly.”

One of Hubbart’s big pushes is the establishment in the state of a climate Mesonet, an automated network of monitoring stations that can help producers maximize crop yield and help residents prepare for severe weather.

While West Virginia has individual monitoring stations gathering data for agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there isn’t a system working in concert to make more local predictions.

A vital part to making use of predictive data is being able to expand public understanding, Hubbart says. That’s why he is focused on talking to stakeholders, from residents to industry leaders, and pushing for the development of a water ethic — an understanding that water has to be protected to protect the land and everything on it.

“We also are at this place in time where some may feel over-regulated by the federal government perhaps, or by our states, and that may or may not be true,” Hubbart said. “But until it becomes our idea, how we manage there source is unlikely to change. Water security has to become our idea.”

“I don’t know if that’s going to happen in my lifetime, but it’s something worth pursuing and it’s something that as long as I am able to push the agenda of the Institute here and to continue to do research and think about water and the health of our citizens, then I will continue to do that. I can’t imagine too many things more worthwhile in life."