Jan. 9, 2014, was a watershed day in West Virginia history.

That’s when 10,000 gallons of chemicals used in processing coal spilled from a storage tank into the Elk River, the drinking water source for 300,000 residents in a nine-county region, including Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city. The contamination forced the temporary closure of schools, businesses and the state’s highest court.

West Virginia farmland conservation sign

Fog begins to lift on a West Virginia farm that has been protected from suburban sprawl because its owners sold the development rights to the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board. 

Six years later, the spill and the uproar it caused have dissipated. But in a far corner of the state that was spared from the incident’s effects, an environmental group is trying to make sure that what happened to the Elk River doesn’t repeat itself elsewhere.

The West Virginia Rivers Coalition is testing an approach that involves protecting farms from converting to new roads, subdivisions and industrial parks. And all of that work is taking place in the Eastern Panhandle, one of the fastest-growing parts of the state and the Chesapeake Bay region.

The group has brought together land trusts, local governments and conservation groups to identify prime parcels for conservation easements. A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement attached to the deed of a property. The easement limits certain kinds of activities or land use, with terms that vary depending on the landowner’s goals. In some cases, governments and other organizations offer payments as an incentive for establishing an easement.

The West Virginia transactions would allow farmers to voluntarily sell the development rights to their land while retaining the property for growing crops, raising livestock and other agricultural uses.

Tanner Haid, the Rivers Coalition’s local field coordinator, said he hopes that preserving farmland will ward off pollution emergencies like the 2014 incident and ensure that everyday stormwater runoff is safe for municipal water supplies.

 “It shouldn’t solely be on water utilities to make sure our water resources are clean and safe,” he said.

But that is largely the case. Within weeks of the Elk River spill, state lawmakers passed a law requiring 125 public water systems that rely on surface waters — those most vulnerable to contamination — to overhaul their source water protection plans. Among other things, the new plans had to catalog potential contamination sources and draft response protocols in the event of future spills.

Aerial of conserved farmland in WV

This farmland near West Virginia’s Back Creek, owned by Floyd and Michaela Kursey, has been preserved to protect drinking water reserves. 

The law set a 2016 deadline for utilities to update their plans. The West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a group formed by outdoors enthusiasts three decades ago, didn’t want the momentum to stop there.

In 2017, the coalition began turning the plans into action in select parts of the state. Most of its efforts have centered on Berkeley and Jefferson counties, which jut out from the state’s eastern flank between Maryland to the north and Virginia to the south.

The westward march of the Baltimore and Washington, DC, metro area has transformed the Eastern Panhandle’s cornfields into hot real estate, Haid said.

“That’s where we’re seeing the growth and development happening,” he said. “That’s where our land use is changing the fastest from agriculture and forest fields to roads, buildings, highways and other impervious surfaces.”

Since 2010, Berkeley County has experienced the fastest population growth among the state’s 55 counties, rising 12% to more than 117,000 residents, according to a Bay Journal analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Jefferson was the third fastest growing, adding 6% to reach more than 56,000 residents.

The Eastern Panhandle’s evolution from a sleepy farming outpost to a bustling suburb is even more profound when viewed at ground level.

Research conducted by the Cacapon Institute, a West Virginia-based conservation group, estimates that the three-state metro area that includes the Panhandle saw its development spread at the fastest rate anywhere in the Bay watershed from 2000-2010.

The region’s developed area grew from 77 square miles to 133 square miles during that span, the report found. Because the metro’s developed territory expanded at a higher rate than its population growth — 74% urban land expansion versus 52% more people — the result was urban sprawl.

‘It’s not only that you see this rapid development,” said Mark Schiavone, executive director of the Berkeley County Farmland Protection Board. “It just sprawls.”

The frequent earth-turning affects local water supplies, said Barbara Humes, a Harpers Ferry councilwoman and representative on the local water system’s advisory panel. Sediment often clogs the machinery at the water treatment plant, creating a costly and time-consuming cleanup.

“We find at the water utility [that] what happens upstream has a definite impact on the downstream cleansing at the water works,” Humes said. “You have to use more chemicals and manpower to keep the pumps operating and running smoothly.”

WV creek on conserved farmland

Tilhance Creek winds through West Virginia acreage that has been permanently protected by an agricultural conservation easement to help protect the local drinking water supply.

As Haid and his colleagues saw it, the Panhandle would be a good laboratory for enhanced land conservation because it already had success in the field. In just less than 20 years, the state farmland protection boards in the two counties have spent $34 million to purchase more than 10,000 acres of easements from farmers. That adds up to about 7% of the farmland in the two counties.

It’s a start, conservationists say, but much more land needs to be saved to benefit water resources.

The counties also have the advantage of being outside West Virginia’s vast coal country. Properties that have severed mineral rights are disqualified from receiving federal cost-share payments for easements, making their acquisition far more difficult, Schiavone said.

What the Panhandle’s land trusts and farmland protection boards lacked, though, was coordination with each other and the area’s water suppliers, Haid said.

Fast forward to 2017, when the Rivers Coalition first assembled a network of Eastern Panhandle community partners. Dubbed the Safe Water Conservation Collaborative, the membership consists of more than 20 entities, including five of the area’s six water utilities.

In 2019, the initiative received $30,000 from the Land Trust Alliance and Chesapeake Bay Funders Network. The funding is aimed at helping the collaborative compile an inventory of properties whose preservation is most critical for protecting drinking water. They also hope to develop a five-year action plan by the time the grant expires in April.

The collaborative doesn’t have enough money to buy conservation easements itself. For now, the members are measuring progress by the number of conversations they have with landowners. But a possible early sign of success is that Berkeley’s Farmland Protection Board has received 22 easement applications this year alone; going back to its founding in 2001, the board had only acquired 55 easements.

Haid said he hopes that other entities will use the land inventory developed by the collaborative to guide their easement purchases.

The effort also includes contacting farm owners who have already sold easements about the best ways to maintain their properties for the protection of water sources.

Susan and Michael Whalton moved from Key West, FL, to a sprawling farm along the Back Creek about 20 years ago. They were looking for a rural paradise, and they found it, Susan Whalton said. Not long after, they agreed to put their 147-acre property under a conservation easement.

“For us, it was a desire to protect something we found so extraordinary,” she said. “We just couldn’t believe they would offer you money to purchase your easement and protect it forever. For us, it was you can really have your cake and eat it, too.”

But she soon learned that not all of her neighbors shared that sentiment. They were uneasy about the government or anyone else having control of their land.

Whalton decided to become a member of the collaborative’s education workgroup to help protect her modern-day Eden beyond her fence line. “We all are united by a watershed,” she said.

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