Clearing the Waters: West Virginia’s Impaired Streams List

By Olivia Miller

As we have all heard before, the first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging that you have one. The same is true in order for us to improve and maintain the health of our streams, rivers, and lakes.

The Clean Water Act requires every state to take the first step in addressing statewide water quality by compiling a list of impaired and threatened waters and submitting it to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approval (or disapproval) every two years. For each water on the list, the state identifies the pollutant causing the stream not to meet state water quality standards. This list, known as the 303(d) list, kick-starts the process of cleaning up polluted streams. 

Once an impaired water body is identified, it triggers the development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for that water. TMDLs establish the maximum amount of a pollutant allowed in a water body and serve as a starting point for restoring water quality. 

After TMDLs have been established, states can begin to address the problem through permits to control sources of pollution or managed through grants, partnerships, and voluntary and other programs. 

States are required to update and resubmit their impaired waters list every two years. The last time the EPA approved an impaired stream list submitted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) was in 2016. Now, West Virginia is faced with a six-year backlog of streams that are in need of restoration but have not been receiving the help they need. 

Because of the backlog, the WVDEP submitted a combined impaired stream list for 2018, 2020, and 2022 in May. In its response to West Virginia’s submission, the EPA did not fully approve the submission on the basis that WVDEP did not provide a technical, science-based rationale for excluding existing and readily available biological and other water quality data in its decision-making process. The EPA also identified an additional 346 impaired streams, over 1,600 stream miles, missing from the list—117 of which WVDEP attempted to delist.

Additionally, the report revealed that WVDEP has continued to use an outdated water quality assessment tool despite repeated direction by the EPA to replace it with the best available methodology since 2010. 

In July, the EPA released a public notice announcing the EPA’s identification of the additional streams and offered the public a chance to review the additional waters to be added to West Virginia’s Section 303(d) list and provide comment. 

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy joined the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and other environmental groups in a letter supporting the EPA in its finding that WVDEP did not use and did not provide a rationale for not using the latest science and data in preparation of its impaired stream list and supporting the inclusion of the 346 additional streams.