USGS Logo and Link

Water Resources Investigations Report 00-4020

Environmental Setting and Its Relations to Water Quality in the Kanawha River Basin

By: Terence Messinger and C.A. Hughes


The Kanawha River and its major tributary, the New River, drain 12,233 mi2 in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Altitude ranges from about 550 ft to more than 4,700 ft. The Kanawha River Basin is mountainous, and includes parts of three physiographic provinces, the Blue Ridge (17 percent), Valley and Ridge (23 percent), and Appalachian Plateaus (60 percent). In the Appalachian Plateaus Province, little of the land is flat, and most of the flat land is in the flood plains and terraces of streams; this has caused most development in this part of the basin to be near streams. The Blue Ridge Province is composed of crystalline rocks, and the Valley and Ridge and Appalachian Plateaus Provinces contain both carbonate and clastic rocks. Annual precipitation ranges from about 36 in. to more than 60 in., and is orographically affected, both locally and regionally. Average annual air temperature ranges from about 43F to about 55F, and varies with altitude but not physiographic province. Precipitation is greatest in the summer and least in the winter, and has the least seasonal variation in the Blue Ridge Province.

In 1990, the population of the basin was about 870,000, of whom about 25 percent lived in the Charleston, W. Va. metropolitan area. About 75 million tons of coal were mined in the Kanawha River Basin in 1998. This figure represents about 45 percent of the coal mined in West Virginia, and about seven percent of the coal mined in the United States. Dominant forest types in the basin are Northern Hardwood, Oak-Pine, and Mixed Mesophytic. Agricultural land use is more common in the Valley and Ridge and Blue Ridge Provinces than in the Appalachian Plateaus Province. Cattle are the principal agricultural products of the basin.

Streams in the Blue Ridge Province and Allegheny Highlands have the most runoff in the basin, and streams in the Valley and Ridge Province and the southwestern Appalachian Plateaus have the least runoff. Streamflow is greatest in the spring and least in the autumn. About 61 percent of the basin's population use surface water from public supply for their domestic needs; about 30 percent use self-supplied ground water, and about nine percent use ground water from public supply. In 1995, total withdrawal of water in the basin was about 1,130 Mgal/d. Total consumptive use was about 118 Mgal/d. Surface water in the Blue Ridge Province is usually dilute (less than 100 mg/L dissolved solids) and well aerated. Dissolved- solids concentrations in streams of the Valley and Ridge Province at low flow are typically greater (150-180 mg/L) than those in the Blue Ridge Province. The Appalachian Plateaus Province contains streams with the most dilute (less than 30 mg/L dissolved solids) and least dilute (more than 500 mg/L dissolved solids) water in the basin.

Coal mining has degraded more miles of streams in the basin than any other land use. Streams that receive coal-mine drainage may be affected by sedimentation, and typically contain high concentrations of sulfate, iron, and manganese. Other major water-quality issues include inadequate domestic sewage treatment, present and historic disposal of industrial wastes, and logging, which results in the addition of sediment, nutrients, and other constituents to the water.

One hundred eighteen fish species are reported from the Kanawha River system downstream from Kanawha Falls. Of these, 15 are listed as possible, probable, or known introductions. None of these fish species is endemic to the Kanawha River Basin. The New River system has only 46 native fishes, the lowest ratio of native fishes to drainage area of any river system in the eastern United States, and the second-highest proportion of endemic fish species (eight of 46) of any river system in the eastern United States.




Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Purpose and Scope

Relation to other reports and information on the World Wide Web


Environmental Setting of the Kanawha River Basin



Geologic Setting

Crystalline rocks

Carbonate rocks

Clastic rocks

Mineral deposits and extraction



Land use and land cover

Coal mining







Hydrologic Aspects of the Basin


Flow duration



Ground water

Alluvial aquifers

Sedimentary bedrock aquifers

Crystalline bedrock aquifers

Water Use

Relations of Water Quality to Environmental Setting

Relation of Water Quality to Natural Factors

Surface water

Ground water

Relation of Water Quality to Human Factors

Coal mining

Domestic waste disposal

Industrial activities



Urban activities

Oil and gas extraction

Fish and Invertebrate Distribution


References Cited


1–5.   Maps showing:

1. Streams, towns, and other selected features of the Kanawha River Basin

2. Physiography of the Kanawha River Basin

3. Ecoregions and counties of the Kanawha River Basin

4. Selected geologic formations of the Kanawha River Basin

5. Population density in the Kanawha River Basin

6–7.   Graphs showing:

6. Population trends by state for counties partly or entirely within the Kanawha River Basin, 1900-1990

7. Coal production and mining jobs statewide in West Virginia, 1900-1998

8–10.   Maps showing:

8. Land cover of the Kanawha River Basin

9. Coal production for counties in the Kanawha River Basin, 1980-1995

10. Coal fields in the Kanawha River Basin

11–12.   Graphs showing:

11. West Virginia coal production for the Northern and Southern coal fields, 1986-1998

12. Underground and surface coal production in West Virginia counties entirely or partly within the the Kanawha River Basin, 1961-1998

13a–c.   Maps showing:

13a. Cattle in the Kanawha River Basin by county

13b. Hay in the Kanawha River Basin by county

13c. Corn in the Kanawha River Basin by county

14–15.   Graphs showing:

14a. Relation between altitude and 30-year (1961-90) mean annual air temperature at 28 sites in the Kanawha River Basin

14b. 30-year mean (1961-90) annual air temperature for physiographic provinces in the Kanawha River Basin

14c. 30-year (1961-90) mean monthly air temperature for four selected sites in the Kanawha River Basin

15a. 30-year mean (1961-90) annual precipitation for physiographic settings in the Kanawha River Basin

15b. 30-year mean (1961-90) monthly precipitation for physiographic settings in the Kanawha River Basin

16. Map showing selected streams, gaging stations, and towns in the Kanawha River Basin

7–19.   Graphs showing:

17. Seasonal variation in runoff in four selected streams in the Kanawha River Basin

18. Flow duration curves for selected large, medium, and small streams in the Kanawha River Basin

19. Flow duration curves for Kanawha River near Kanawha Falls, for periods when the river was unregulated, regulated by Claytor and (after 1949) Bluestone Dams on the New River, and then also by Summersville Dam on the Gauley River


1. Most used pesticides in the Kanawha River Basin, by treated area and active ingredient, and their common uses in the United States

2. Station numbers, physiographic settings, drainage areas, and period of record for selected Kanawha River Basin gaging stations

3. Streamflow statistics and other information for selected streams in the Kanawha River Basin


Vertical coordinate information is referenced to the National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929 (NGVD 29). Altitude, as used in the report, refers to distance above or below NGVD 29. NGVD 29 can be converted to the North American Vertical Datum of 1988 (NAVD 88) by using the National Geodetic Survey conversion utility available at URL


This report is available online in Portable Document Format (PDF). If you do not have the Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader, it is available for free download from Adobe Systems Incorporated.

Printable tabloid cover (2.0 MB)

View the full report in PDF (7.8 MB)

Document Accessibility:  Adobe Systems Incorporated has information about PDFs and the visually impaired. This information provides tools to help make PDF files accessible. These tools and the accessible reader may be obtained free from Adobe at Adobe Access.

For more information about USGS activities in West Virginia contact:

District Chief

U.S. Geological Survey

Water Resources Discipline

11 Dunbar Street

Charleston, West Virginia 25301

Telephone: (304) 347-5130

Fax: (304) 347-5133

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Persistent URL:
Page Contact Information: Contact USGS
Last modified: Wednesday, December 07 2016, 01:27:20 PM
FirstGov button  Take Pride in America button