Mountain Hydrology Lab Addresses Water Security and Climate Change

By Cory Chase

On November 12, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicolas (Nico) Zégre, PhD, about climate change and the future of WV’s water. Nicolas is an associate professor of forest hydrology and director of the West Virginia University Mountain Hydrology Laboratory (MHL). This lab “focus[es] on aspects of water resources with a particular emphasis on land surface and atmospheric processes, patterns, and trends to ultimately understand how mountain freshwater ecosystems and services respond to environmental change and climate change….In the MHL, we aim to understand how watersheds and humans interact to better understand how disturbances such as climate change, land-use/land cover change, energy development, and water use affect water access, security, justice, and equity.”

We talked on Zoom and below is a recap of our conversation.
Cory: Hi Nico, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today about your work with MHL. I read that your three main goals are to democratize data on water resources, quantify the impacts (and opportunities) of climate change, and to educate people to increase climate literacy. Are there any other goals for your work with MHL?
Nicolas: Another critical goal is sharing our enthusiasm around how amazing WV is. There are two main ways to do that: explain what is amazing (not just what is wrong) in WV and describe what WV contributes to the country. Our state has a deep-seated identity to coal as powering the nation but we also provide LOTS of water directly to 3% of the population and indirectly to 10%. We are the provisioners of fresh water to so many people who live downstream. Water is a common language that connects. 

We actually ARE climate zero because our coal and natural gas have global implications but also because WV is experiencing some of the greatest impacts being felt. We are ground zero…we contribute to the problem but also inherit a large part of the burden.

Cory: How long have you been doing this work with MHL?
Nicolas: I moved to WV in 2009 from Oregon to start this lab. I have a history in WV going back to the 1990’s.

Cory: I’ve read that Appalachia is projected to see the largest temperature increase in the United States. What are some unique opportunities and challenges with regards to climate change that we face here in Appalachia?

Nicolas: There are many challenges. We often discuss climate change in terms of long-term average values of air temperature and precipitation. For example, the earth’s atmosphere has warmed by 2 degrees over pre-industrial times. But there are also meaningful changes in minimum and maximum temperatures. We know from measurements that maximum temperatures in WV are not changing that much. But minimum temperatures are increasing so things like the overnight cooling temperatures are less cold. 

Warmer overnight temperatures affect forest health, diseases, pests, and a host of other things. Warmer air also means more intense rainfall. As our atmosphere becomes warmer, it expands increasing how much water it can hold. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation from the land surface putting more water in to the atmosphere. This leads to more intense rainfall, flood risks, and vulnerability. Most of WV’s and the nation’s infrastructure is along waterways. 

As for opportunities, we should use this word lightly. The climate crisis is not stopping anytime soon and 2/3rds of the US is becoming warmer and drier while WV is becoming warmer, wetter and drier (greater variability in extremes). WV has a real opportunity to change our relationship with the nation as provisioners of fresh water downstream. Water scarcity is going to increase conflict and we may be able to be reliable providers of water to the eastern US and Midwest. 

We cannot be reliable providers of water until we clean it up, protect it and enhance it. Nobody wants acid mine drainage water. You can’t drink it or use it in manufacturing processes. Restoring landscapes is costly but needs to be done in order to protect our watersheds and provide a clean water to ecosystems and communities. 

When we increase climate literacy in WV, we increase public discourse and opportunities for reshaping WV’s future. Bottom-up solidarity and understanding among citizens. Over the last few years, public discourse around climate change, flooding, vulnerability, and resilience has increased… people want their best interests considered in decision making by our elected representatives.

Cory: How can we increase public understanding of how climate affects our lives?

Nicolas: We need to talk about it with our families, communities, churches, and so on. Climate change and its impacts are a shared experience. We don’t need scientific models to tell us that things are changing; we can see it and feel it. We need to recognize and share our collective lived experiences since we are all experts in our lived experiences. Our elected representatives need to hear our concerns and ideas.

Cory: How would you describe water security?

Nicolas: Water security is the lens with which we think about how humans and the environment are inextricably linked. It considers acceptable levels of water-related risk to human and ecosystems coupled with sufficient water quantity and quality to sustain healthy life and support livelihoods. Water is required to have a vibrant and thriving economy, not just for people. Water is implicit to healthy communities, economies, and ecosystems.

Cory: How can the public help to secure clean water?
Nicolas: The big thing is talking about it. Ask yourself what is your relationship with water? Stop acting like climate change, flooding, and pollution are too big of problems for us to change. We need to demand our elected representatives have our best interests in mind. Don’t let manufacturers and industry and special interest groups tell us what our quality of life should be.

Cory: How does race factor into water security?

Nicolas: Race and other social factors are very important to water security. Across the US, black, brown indigenous, and poor white communities are disproportionately exposed to water, land, and air pollution that decrease quality of life. A person’s zip code is a strong predictor of water, food, energy, and health insecurity.

Cory: Are there actions our WVHC membership can take to help?
Nicolas: Yes, communicate with your representatives. They need to hear from us as individuals and organizations. We need to shift our focus towards youth since they are the future and they are inheriting a less safe world. WV’s change is not going to come from the current generation of voters and decision makers and from people who are entrenched in their politics, and at the whims of lobbyists or special interest groups. The future is in youth! We in the MHL, are actively focusing on co-producing, tools, and solutions with Appalachian youth. Most important is bringing youth to the table as experts on what we can do to make a more vibrant and healthier WV. We have to democratize knowledge so we can democratize solutions. Support youth organizing if you can. MHL has engaged with public school teachers to see what kind of tools and materials that they need for increasing environmental literacy…Our public teachers are underpaid and undervalued. We can work with them by providing educational materials that enhance climate and water literacy. 

Cory: That is a great point about youth activism. I am hoping that WVHC and other WV organizations can spend more effort on youth engagement. Nicolas, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Any closing thoughts?

Nicolas: My pleasure, Cory. One thing that is really important for the environmental community is to focus on WV solidarity.  We should not be fighting pro-coal communities but fighting the policies that promote toxic environmental practices. No single one person is the enemy and we need to collectively work to dismantle the political and industry practices that actually harm us and our opportunities.

Learn more at the MHL website: