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A Primer: West Virginia Scenic Rivers Act (Part 1 - River Classifications)

Image Description: A shoreline along the Cheat River stained orange by acid mine drainage from an abandoned mine. The water is dramatically cleaner but the scars remain.

In August (2023), I received a phone call from State Senator Mike Caputo (D-Marion). He had just finished reading a draft of the West Virginia Scenic Rivers Act of 2024 and wanted to introduce the bill in the January 2024 legislative session.

So, what is this bill all about? What does it say? First and foremost, the bill is about protecting and promoting our state's most delicate and scenic rivers and streams, just as the homepage implies. The bill recognizes that certain West Virginia stream and rivers possess outstanding scenic, recreational, geological, fish and wildlife, botanical, historical, archeological and other scientific and cultural values of great present and future benefit to the people. The bill advocates clean water (who doesn't want clean, drinkable water), promotes tourism and recreational activities in a clean and healthy environment, and protects the state's natural wanders for all to enjoy.

The West Virginia Scenic Rivers Act (let's just call it the WVSRA) proposes three classifications of select streams and rivers: wild rivers, scenic rivers and recreational rivers. Wild rivers, or wild river areas, pertain to a very select few rivers, or sections of rivers. These rivers represent the last remaining vestiges of untouched, pristine rivers in the state; they represent primitive West Virginia. It is important to keep these rivers from pollution and keep them free-flowing (no dams or impoundments) so that native wildlife, plant life and aquatic life can thrive in their natural habitat. These areas will attract environmental tourism and scientific research, among other things.

Scenic rivers are considered free-flowing (no dams or impoundments) rivers or sections of rivers, with lands adjacent to them partially or predominantly used for agriculture or other uncongested (dispersed) human activities. In order to be qualified as a scenic river, the lands adjacent to them should not detract from the public use and enjoyment of the rivers and their shores. The bill allows lands adjacent to a designated scenic river to remain in the type of use existing at the time of designation, or else be allowed to revert to natural conditions.

Recreational rivers have been impacted by man-made development but still possess actual or potential scenic values. These are rivers have been impacted by housing or other development near their shorelines, rivers that have roads or railroads running parallel to them, rivers that have some impoundments or obstructions, and rivers that are polluted, for example, by acid mine drainage, strip-mine or mountain-top removal, and commercial timbering. It is the goal of this legislation to try to prevent further loss of scenic values to these rivers, to improve the scenic aspects of their surroundings, and to restore the quality of the waters.

Part 2 of the WVSRA Primer will address how rivers are designated and included in the bill. Stay tuned.

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