Protecting Our Water, One Drop at a Time

Article By: Bonnie Williamson
Photos By: Jenny DiCola

This past summer, the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, along with most of the Eastern Seaboard, experienced unprecedented amounts of rainfall. According to the National Weather Service, the region had 20 inches of rain more than it normally does. Though most may believe rain, in reasonable amounts, may be a blessing, what happens when it comes to stormwater runoff, the result of that rain, can be disastrous for rivers and streams. The Cacapon Institute has been dedicated to protecting watersheds and rivers by using science and education for more than 30 years.

“People see the stormwater runoff, but just don’t think about where it’s going,” says Frank Rodgers, the institute’s executive director. “Sediments, nutrients from the soil, pollutants from driveways and roads all head for rivers and streams. We are trying to protect our waters, literally one rain drop at a time.”

The Cacapon Institute began in 1985 as the Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory (PCREL). It was founded by Dr. George Constantz and his wife Nancy Ailes with a mission to teach and research Appalachian natural history. Scientific equipment was installed in a small smokehouse, and in 1986 school groups visited the lab and Cacapon River water quality studies began. The institute grew in response to concerns over increasing development, industry and agriculture that were harming the Cacapon River. The expansion also went beyond the Cacapon watershed to a much larger region, which includes the eight West Virginia counties of Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, Mineral, Hampshire, Hardy, Grant and Pendleton. The institute concerns itself with making water clean all the way to the Potomac River and on to the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2015, the Cacapon Institute moved to its current location at 10 Rock Ford Rd. in Great Cacapon, Morgan County West Virginia. There are four full-time employees and two-part timers.

The institute is named after the Cacapon River, an American Heritage River, located in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle region. Both the river and the institute get their names from a Native American word meaning “healing waters.” The river is part of the Potomac River watershed.

Concerning the term watershed, a watershed is the area of land that water flows across or under on its way to a single river. In the Cacapon River watershed, water flows down from various mountain ridges into the Cacapon River basin. On its way to the river, water travels over the surface and across farm fields, forest land, residential lawns, and city streets, or it seeps into the soil and travels as ground water. Large watersheds are made up of many small watersheds.

Rodgers is a certified arborist. An arborist specializes in the cultivation, management, and study of individual trees, shrubs, and vines. Arborists focus on the health and safety of individual plants and trees. The importance of trees in protecting the water supply is key, according to Rodgers.

“We believe planting trees is the best management practice to reduce stormwater runoff and the pollution that can be caused by it. And we believe in a hands-on approach,” he says.

To that end, the Cacapon Institute has three programs designed to encourage students and communities to plant trees.

The Potomac Headwaters Leaders of Watersheds program (PHLOW) is a program for students K through 12.

“We want them to learn by doing,” Rodgers says. “Students learn what causes pollution, where it comes from and how to fight it. They can plant rain gardens, for example.”

A rain garden is defined as a designed depression or hole that allows rainwater runoff from urban areas like roofs, driveways, parking lots and lawn areas the opportunity to be absorbed. It can contain vegetation like wild flowers, rushes and ferns, shrubs and small trees.

“Trees capture pollutants in their leaves, and their canopies, before those pollutants even touch the ground,” Rodgers says.

Homeowners can do their part by simply having barrels to catch rain water.

The Carla Hardy WV Project CommuniTree or CTree program can help communities plant trees on public lands at no cost. CTree, run by Tanner Haid, Cacapon Institute’s Urban Watershed Forester, is the largest volunteer tree steward program in West Virginia. CTree has planted more than 6,000 trees in more than 200 projects in five years.The third program, Community Environmental Management, encourages communities to plant trees on private land with the cost being shared by matching federal money. Information on all of these programs can be found on the institute’s website at

All of this can fall under the umbrella of urban forestry. Urban forestry advocates the role of trees as a critical part of the urban infrastructure. Urban foresters plant and maintain trees, support appropriate tree and forest preservation, conduct research and promote the many benefits trees provide.

“According to the 1980 census, the majority of people in the United States live in urban settings and continue to do so now,” Rodgers says. “Urban forestry may sound like a contradiction in terms, but urban forestry deals with the care and management of tree populations in urban settings for the purpose of improving the urban environment. For example, studies have shown that schools with a good population of trees have healthier students, less cases of asthma.”

Rodgers says the importance of tree planting and/or maintaining existing trees becomes more and more vital as development takes over land with an increasing number of trees being chopped down.

The Institute’s website even lists its vision for the future as, “In thirty years, a stream without a buffer (which could be those trees) will look as out of place as a smoker in a conference room does today.”

Rodgers says one significant success story the institute has been involved with is the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Organizations in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., along with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, through proper land management, have succeeded in making the Chesapeake Bay healthier,” Rodgers says.

Rodgers says that every body of water in the world has a dead zone. A dead zone is caused by eutrophication, the excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to runoff from the land, which causes a dense growth of algae and death of animal life from lack of oxygen.

These areas literally have no oxygen.”The Chesapeake Bay is the only body of water in the world where the dead zone is shrinking in size,” Rodgers says.

The success of the continuing recovery of the Chesapeake Bay has caused a worldwide reaction. Scientists from around the world came to West Virginia’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown for the Chesapeake Watershed Forum in early November to learn how to fight the growing problem of dead zones.

“A lot can be accomplished even if you start small,” Rodgers says. “One drop at a time.”

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