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Benthic invertebrate communities and their responses to selected environmental factors in the Kanawha River basin, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina

June 1, 2002

The effects of selected environmental factors on the composition and structure of benthic invertebrate communities in the Kanawha River Basin of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina were investigated in 1997 and 1998. Environmental factors investigated include physiography, land-use pattern, streamwater chemistry, streambed- sediment chemistry, and habitat characteristics. Land-use patterns investigated include coal mining, agriculture, and low intensity rural-residential patterns, at four main stem and seven tributary sites throughout the basin. Of the 37 sites sampled, basin size and physiography most strongly affected benthic invertebrate-community structure.

Land-use practices also affected invertebrate community structure in these basins. The basins that differed most from the minimally affected reference condition were those basins in which coal mining was the dominant nonforest land use, as determined by comparing invertebrate- community metric values among sites. Basins in which agriculture was important were more similar to the reference condition.

The effect of coal mining upon benthic invertebrate communities was further studied at 29 sites and the relations among invertebrate communities and the selected environmental factors of land use, streamwater chemistry, streambed- sediment chemistry, and habitat characteristics analyzed. Division of coal-mining synoptic-survey sites based on invertebrate-community composition resulted in two groups?one with more than an average production of 9,000 tons of coal per square mile per year since 1980, and one with lesser or no recent coal production. The group with significant recent coal production showed higher levels of community impairment than the group with little or no recent coal production. Median particle size of streambed sediment, and specific conductance and sulfate concentration of streamwater were most strongly correlated with effects on invertebrate communities. These characteristics were related to mining intensity, as measured by thousands of tons of coal produced per square mile of drainage area.