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Streams are everywhere in West Virginia. Abundant precipitation coupled with hundreds of millions of years of erosion of the Allegheny Plateau combine to produce the many rivers, streams, creeks, runs, branches, forks, and rivulets on the state’s landscape. There are about 10,000 named streams in West Virginia. The state has nearly 40,000 stream miles, an average of 1.65 miles of stream for every square mile of land. This is one of the highest stream densities of any region in North America.

Almost all streams in the state are part of one of two major river basins, the Potomac to the east and the Ohio to the west. (A small portion of the James River basin is found in eastern Monroe County on the Virginia border.) The Potomac River, which drains the entire Eastern Panhandle, forms the border of West Virginia and Maryland with its main stem and North Branch and ultimately flows to the Chesapeake Bay. Major rivers that are part of the upper Potomac system include the Potomac’s North Branch and South Branch, the Cacapon, and the Shenandoah.

The eastern continental divide separates the Potomac River basin from the Ohio River basin. Most of West Virginia, about 80 percent of the state’s area, falls west of the divide and is part of the Ohio basin. In West Virginia the Ohio watershed includes such rivers as the Guyandotte, Tug Fork, Greenbrier, New, Gauley, Elk, Coal, Kanawha, Little Kanawha, Cheat, Tygart Valley, West Fork, Monongahela, and the Ohio itself. The Ohio watershed drains to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

West Virginia’s rivers flow in almost every direction. For example, in Pocahontas County, the ‘‘Birthplace of Rivers,’’ five rivers originate and flow in five directions. The Greenbrier River flows south to the New; the Gauley River flows southwest to the Kanawha; the Elk River west to the Kanawha; and the Cheat and Tygart Valley rivers flow north and northwest to the Monongahela.

Streams come in all sizes, and there is no official standard for designating whether a particular water course should be called a creek or a river. Smaller streams tend to be named creeks, runs, forks, or branches, whereas the term ‘‘river’’ is reserved for larger streams. There are exceptions. For example, Middle Island Creek of Pleasants and Tyler counties is longer than the Eastern Panhandle’s Stony River and far longer than Summers County’s Little Bluestone River. Cultural traditions play a part in the naming of streams, as well. Runs are found mainly in the eastern and northwestern counties, for example, with such streams more likely to be called creeks or branches elsewhere in West Virginia. Such differences reflect different naming customs in the early settlers of these regions.

Basic physical and biological qualities change as streams become larger. Most streams begin as small spring seeps that may only have water for the wettest portion of the year. Often referred to as ephemeral streams, these often are cold, steep, and have a heavy shade cover. The ecosystem in small streams typically is fed by the decomposition of leaves and sticks by bacteria, fungi, and insects. As streams get larger and wider, they become lower in gradient and take a more winding path. Larger streams receive more sunlight as their banks spread apart. As a result, they are warmer, more biologically productive, and support a more diverse community of fishes, amphibians, and insects.

Streams are of great importance to the economy and the quality of life of West Virginians. Our rivers provide drinking water to major population centers in our state, including Charleston, Morgantown, and other communities, and to out-of-state cities including Pittsburgh and Washington. Our rivers also provide water for agriculture and industry. River water irrigates livestock and crops along the South Branch Potomac, for example, and meets the needs of industrial giants on the Kanawha and Ohio. Water pumped from rivers and reservoirs is used to generate steam in coal-fired power plants, and the power of rivers is directly harnessed in hydroelectric facilities on the Cheat and other rivers. West Virginia rivers have played a critical part in the nation’s transportation network since early times. The Monongahela, Kanawha, Big Sandy, and Ohio rivers continue to be used for navigation, and hundreds of millions of tons of coal and chemicals are shipped on these rivers each year.

Just as important are the benefits that can be provided only by healthy stream ecosystems. The diversity of life supported by streams and rivers is both an important natural heritage and a critical component of our natural life support systems. Biodiversity enables aquatic ecosystems to assimilate our wastes, purify our water, and put fish in our creel.

In addition, recreational opportunities provided by streams, such as boating, canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting provide pleasure to West Virginians and are among our valuable tourism assets.

Despite the importance of healthy streams, protection of these systems historically has been a low priority. Consequently, damage to streams and rivers from mining, industry, agriculture, and urbanization is widespread. More than 60 percent of our streams are no longer capable of providing beneficial uses such as drinking water, irrigation, fishing, or swimming. Portions of every major river in West Virginia were deemed impaired as a result of human activities by the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection in 2004.

Nevertheless, efforts are being made to improve the condition of West Virginia streams. Researchers, citizens, industry, and political leaders across the state are attempting to find innovative ways to protect and restore creeks and rivers, while continuing to foster sustainable economic development. Nowhere are these efforts more apparent than in the citizens’ watershed organizations that can be found throughout the state. From the Friends of Cheat in northeastern West Virginia to the Friends of Paint Creek in the south-central portion of the state, these groups are working to find ways to restore and protect streams, and to improve access to these valuable resources.

This Article was written by Todd Petty

Last Revised on November 05, 2010


Cite This Article

Petty, Todd "Streams." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 05 November 2010. Web. 17 January 2018.

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