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WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: Deckers Creek, West Virginia

Photos by Basia Irland unless otherwise noted.  Source pond at spring Beginnings of the creek As a tributary of the Monongahela River, which runs through north-central West Virginia, I am only 24.6 miles (39.6 km) in length, with a watershed of 64-square miles. In my upper reaches I flow through some beautiful stretches of land, including...

Photos by Basia Irland unless otherwise noted.

 !. Source pond at springSource pond at spring

2. Beginnings of the creek.Beginnings of the creek

As a tributary of the Monongahela River, which runs through north-central West Virginia, I am only 24.6 miles (39.6 km) in length, with a watershed of 64-square miles. In my upper reaches I flow through some beautiful stretches of land, including a rocky gorge that is particularly stunning in autumn. My beginnings are quite humble. I trickle out from a small spring on private land where my pH level is a strong 7.7. This is a good number and indicates drinking water quality. In chemistry, pH is a measure of the acidity of a solution: The lower the number, the more acidic the liquid. About six miles from my mouth, at the lower reach of the watershed, my waters turn a deep terra cotta red-orange and the pH level drops all the way down to 4.2 due to acid mine drainage leaking into my system. It looks like I am bleeding from an ugly open wound. For many years this highly toxic concoction has been gurgling out of the old Richard’s Coal Mine, along with discharges of aluminum, iron and manganese.

3. Water samples showing pH levels.Water samples showing pH levels.

The Richard Mine was opened in 1903 by the West Virginia Coal Company. By 1942, the mine employed over five hundred people and produced more than 600,000 tons of coal. During the extraction process, pyrite (a composition of iron and sulfur) reacts to surface water and oxygen to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron, creating a highly acidic solution that can dissolve metals such as iron, aluminum, and manganese found in the bedrock. When the contaminated water encounters a higher alkalinity environment, the solution precipitates its metals, especially iron-hydroxide, that bright red-orange drainage found flowing into my body.

4.-An-optimistic-volunteer-for-FODC-(Derek-Springston)-at-the-Richard-Mine-discharge-site.An optimistic volunteer for FODC (Derek Springston) at the Richard Mine discharge site. (photographer unknown)

Because the Upper Freeport coal seam is still found today throughout the region, this abandoned mine unfortunately continues to produce acid drainage. The water seeps into the mineshaft and when the pool rises above the level of my surface flow, it spills out. Due to the close proximity to my mouth, the dilution of the Richard Mine toxicity is greater than near my headwaters.

But it’s not all bad news. As with so many of my other relatives around the world, caring people are stepping up to take care of us. Here in West Virginia, Friends of Deckers Creek (FODC) is a community-based group composed of hydrologists, water remediation specialists, local citizens, kayakers and bikers working together on my behalf to improve water quality and end decades of environmental abuse inflicted on my watershed. They have begun to find ways to reduce the toxic flow coming into my body and have crews working to clean up the trash that is so carelessly dumped into me.

Through remediation projects, education, and community outreach it is the FODC’s goal to make me a fishable and swimmable creek again, envisioning my waters as an asset instead of a liability. In my upper watershed, eight drainage treatment sites, operated by Friends of Deckers Creek have been constructed to greatly reduce the toxins emptying into my system. There have been delays in getting a treatment facility installed at the Richard Mine due to the high costs and a lack of funding from the West Virginia and federal government. Hopefully, these obstacles can be overcome.

5. Drainage treatment pondDrainage treatment pond. Photo by Holly Purpura, FODC Director.

Also, during the past six years, the FODC has partnered with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, and Trout Unlimited, to stock young brown trout fingerlings in my watershed. There have been occurrences of individuals catching 14-inch brown trout while fly-fishing, but usually the fish are around 8-10 inches long.

It is possible to follow my entire course on bicycle along a trail converted from old railroad tracks. Bikers, hikers, joggers and parents pushing baby strollers all enjoy this path. Upstream of the outflow is a scenic section where I cascade over waterfalls, boulders, and rockslides to create world class kayaking.

6. Enjoying the upper reaches in a kayak.Enjoying the upper reaches in a kayak.

Deckers Creek gorge in autumn. Photo by Nick Revetta, FODC Project Manager.

A tiny friend who lives under rocks close to shore in my healthy reaches is the caddis fly larvae, of the order Trichoptera. They do well in the waters upstream from where the mine drainage occurs, and are amazing underwater architects. They build dwellings from whatever minute substrate material is nearby as a protective coat for their fragile bodies during the time they are in the larval stage, before they grow into flies. The cases, constructed from small pieces of sand, twig or aquatic plants, are held together with silk excreted from salivary glands near their mouths. Caddis fly cases are open at both ends with the soft bodies protruding from the larger end, allowing them to move while dragging their cases with them. As an indicator species, these larvae witness my health daily.

8. Caddis Fly Larvae

Caddis fly larvae


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Meet the Author

Basia Irland
Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at