Officials Say Flatwater Trails Could Be Part of the Economic Future For Southern W.Va.
In the late 1990s, Bill Currey and a friend were just two West Virginians with a love for the outdoors and fishing. After a fishing trip on a river, Currey was hooked on the idea of sharing West Virginia’s flatwater rivers with the world.
After working for about 20 years to create and develop standards for a flatwater trail system on the Little Coal, Big Big Coal, and Coal Rivers, Currey is chairman of the newly appointed West Virginia Flatwater Trails Commission.
It started with Currey’s big vision but took some attention to detail to create the first flatwater trail.
“If we could get (the rivers) cleaned up to an acceptable level for tourists coming from North Carolina and Virginia,” Currey said, “then we had a goldmine in terms of bringing tourism and helping the coalfield communities that were already suffering from a lack of jobs and closures of coal mines.
“We have a whole brand new industry to bring, but we had to put it together. And that's how we came up with the water trail.”
Currey says there are two aspects to consider for flatwater trail designation. First, litter has to be picked up and the water can’t be contaminated like what he found on the Coal River at the beginning of the project.
“We were disturbed by the condition of the river, not so much chemically but biologically with e coli and sewage and endless literal trash after years of neglect, or lack of paying attention to the rivers,” Currey said.
“And we did this all over the state. I mean, we treated rivers like the sewers. And when people started paddling with kayaks and started coming to the rivers, we developed the Coal River Group. We felt like, if they're coming to visit us, like our home, we want to clean this thing up.”
While working on the Coal River projects, Currey suggested to the community that inviting tourists to your region is like having “company over.”
“It's a thing in West Virginia where we say ‘hey, we better clean up company’s coming,” he said. “When company’s coming, do you want them to see a dirty river? You want them to see a clean river. If they see a clean river, they're going to come back, if they have a good time.
“It's a prime example of what citizens can do (while) working with all the agencies, telling them, this is what we need. We want clean water, so we can develop some economic development from it.”
West Virginia has struggled for decades with polluted waters left from industries. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are both regulatory agencies created to protect the environment. Currey says working with regulatory agencies helped the cause.
“Instead of antagonists, become an advocate and a supporter of our agencies, like the EPA and the DNR and Department of Highways.” Currey said. “It’s important for any community crew. If you want the support to put signs up on the road, showing where boat launches are, you need to nurture the highways department relationship in your area. But likewise, why reinvent the wheel, there's already testing and support available (from the DEP).”
The second aspect to be considered when looking for a flatwater trail designation, is river accessibility. Currey says it’s critical to have clearly marked access points before inviting visitors to the region.
“I've got paddlers from North Carolina and New York, Michigan, Ohio, come into our trails, and they're scared to death of West Virginia,” Currey said. “They've heard all the stories and they think there's banjos playing in the background. If you're doing seven miles, you go put in at your launch, the first thing you gotta do is take another car down at your takeout, so that you've got a car to take you back to the first car when you finish. So that's the critical thing.
“We have to be better than anybody in terms of clarity and showing people where to go and how to get in and where to take out and where to park your car.”
The West Virginia Flatwater Trails Commission was created during the 2020 West Virginia Legislative Session, and has met four times in 2021.
“We met with the tourism department,” Currey said. “They were surprised at how many water trails we had and how sophisticated they already were. The fact that they didn't know a lot about them showed us that we had a lot of work to do to educate people.”
Currey says the members of Flatwater Trail Commission are finalizing suggestions to take to the West Virginia Department of Commerce. Some of the suggestions include addressing additional monitoring, promotion and funding.