Clarksburg Water Board Executes Agreement to Remove Dams

Water board approves removing dams

Clarksburg Exponent
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 mid-July.

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 action.

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 the area.

“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.”