Clarksburg Water Board Executes Agreement to Remove Dams
Water board approves removing dams
23 March 2015
By Jeremiah Shelor, Saff Writer
CLARKSBURG — The Clarksburg Water Board voted 2-1 Monday to
execute a landowner agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service that clears the way for the removal of three dams the
utility owns along the West Fork River.
Board members Al Cox and Charlie Thayer voted in favor of
executing the agreement, with board member Paul Howe — who has
been vocal in his opposition to removing the dams — dissenting.
Howe said he believes the dams are “an asset to the community,”
while Cox and Thayer suggested that removing the dams is
ultimately in the best interest of the utility’s ratepayers.
The water board has been looking at removing the Highland,
Two-Lick and West Milford dams for years due to concerns over the
liability they present to the utility. That led the board to seek
the assistance of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
John Schmidt, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service’s West Virginia Field Office, said the agreement will
allow the agency to begin the permitting process, which he
estimated would take about 90 days. Under the current timetable,
he said, officials will begin deconstructing the dams around
Schmidt said he’s glad the water board took action on the
landowner agreement Monday.
The board had delayed a vote on the agreement three times, and
further delays would have raised the possibility that the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service would pull its funding for the dam
removals in favor of other projects.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service is pleased that we’re able to
move forward,” Schmidt said. “It would definitely be an
improvement from an environmental standpoint.”
Meanwhile, the Harrison County Commission — acting on behalf of a
vocal group of county residents that oppose removing the dams — is
expected to attempt to seize ownership of the dams through legal
Commissioners Ron Watson and Frank “Chunki” Angotti were in
attendance at Monday’s water board meeting, which was held at the
utility’s headquarters on Chestnut Street.
“We have voted. We are in favor of taking the dams,” Angotti told
the board Monday. “It seems like the majority of the people in the
county that we’re hearing from want us to do this.”
Last week, the commission instructed Prosecuting Attorney Rachel
Romano to look into filing an injunction or some other action to
prevent the water board from voting Monday.
“It didn’t matter whether we tried to do something today to
prevent it or to let it move on. It now gives us reason and cause
to take appropriate action,” Watson said after Monday’s meeting.
“I think now that the trigger has been pulled, then it’s up to us
to do whatever we’re going to do.”
Watson said the commission will likely look at using eminent
domain to take control of the dams.
Last week, the commission voted for the second time this year to
declare its support for the West Fork River Water Trail project,
an effort to increase recreation — and economic development
opportunities — along the river.
The commissioners have indicated that their attempt to use eminent
domain will be based on the contention that preserving the dams is
a vital part of the water trail project.
But current and former wildlife and recreation officials in
attendance Monday flatly disputed the idea that the dams are
necessary for a successful water trail.
Peggy Pings, an outdoor recreation planner with the National Park
Service who manages the rivers and trails program in West
Virginia, said she’s been involved in efforts to promote a water
trail along the West Fork since 2013. Pings said dams create a
safety hazard that has to be dealt with when promoting recreation
on a river.
“My message to you is that you can have a water trail with or
without dams. Having a dam on a water trail is a huge safety issue
for paddlers, and so you do need to figure out how to safely get
the public around those dams,” Pings said. “(You need) lots of
signs, lots of public informational material.”
Frank Jernejcic, a recently retired fisheries biologist with the
state Division of Natural Resources, suggested that bringing the
water trail into the debate is a tactic to preserve the dams.
“Water trail development is a separate issue from the dam removal,
but it’s become an excuse to put them together like one can’t
exist without the other,” Jernejcic said. “It’s really a moot
point. The water trail exists. I don’t know why anyone’s even
arguing about this ... if you go here and you’re able to get a
boat in, you can do it.”
Jernejcic said that, based on his experience, removing the dams
would make the West Fork River more likely to attract boaters to
“When we hear the economic development arguments, in my
estimation, in my experience from all the people that I’ve spoken
to, you’re going to bring a lot more people by removing the dams,”
Jernejcic said. “Dams are a problem. Dams are also an impediment
to use of the river.
“If you’re trying to promote economic development by bringing
families in, you’ve got to make it easy for them, and portaging
around a dam, no matter what you do, isn’t going to be easy.”
But John Stenger, a member of the Guardians of the West Fork who
owns property along the river, said removing the dams will
negatively impact a lot of county residents.
“I know probably 100 or more people who have property right close
to the river, and I don’t know of one person, and I say this
honestly, I don’t know of one person who lives out in that area
that wants these dams taken out,” Stenger said. “For the people
that use the river, the dams are more important to us and an asset
to us, and things won’t be as good if the dams are taken out.”
Former water board member Jack Keeley also addressed the board
Monday. Keeley urged the board to consider the issue in terms of
its mission of providing water to rate payers at the lowest
possible cost. What impact removing the dams might have on
recreation falls outside the water board’s purview, he said.
“We worked hard to try to get these dams, which were not part of
our mission anymore, removed,” Keeley said. “It has nothing to do
with these extremist arguments about whether there are cars in the
river or whether there’s going to be fish or trout or muskies.
“It doesn’t matter to you. Your duty is to vote to take these dams
out and divest yourselves of something you have no use for.”