Listen to the experts: Remove dams on West Fork - Editorial

Clarksburg Exponent
7 April 2015

There was a time when the Highland, Two-Lick and West Milford dams served a purpose for the Clarksburg Water Board.

Originally built to control water levels to combat drought and floods, the dams served their purposes for many years. Some records show the dams nearing or exceeding 100 years of existence.

While the dams have been long-time fixtures in the region, the Clarksburg Water Board knows it no longer needs the dams to ensure water supply to its customers. And board members also know the dams are a significant liability: Three people drowned in high water near the Highland Dam in 2000.

As water board staff recently wrote:

“Three obsolete run-of-river dams, Two-Lick, Highland and West Milford, located on the West Fork River, are a safety hazard to the public and a liability for the landowner. Since the establishment of the Stonewall Jackson Dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the dams are no longer needed for water supply. A fourth dam, Hartland, serves as the water supply for the city of Clarksburg. All four dams are owned by the Clarksburg Water Board and impede the upstream and downstream passage of native aquatic species.”

For more than five years, board members have tried to find funding to remove the dams and eliminate the liability and risks to the public.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state Division of Natural Resources staff, as well as other freshwater experts also believe removing the dams will improve the quality of river for both residents and wildlife.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has made about $120,000 available to help remove two of the dams. Agency staff believe more money will be available to remove the third dam and to help restore any of the river habitat that needs assistance.

Now that the money is available, one board member, Paul Howe, has decided he wants to keep the dams. And three Harrison County commissioners, Ron Watson, Bernie Fazzini and Frank “Chunki” Angotti, have joined in to make this a political football.

They are responding to a vocal minority of residents who live around the dams and want to keep them.

The county commissioners have threatened to use eminent domain to try to take over the dams, although it remains to be seen whether a public entity can take over another public entity’s property under state law.

Also to be answered is how the county commission plans to pay for the dams and recommended renovations that could be an additional $500,000.

While the water board has a clear plan to improve the West Fork, with federal and state agencies’ blessings, the county commission is supporting a project that has little substance or clear funding source.

Ultimately, the water board must do what’s right for ratepayers and public safety. Removing the dams removes the risks, and since funding is available, is the fiscally prudent thing to do.

As for the county commissioners, their efforts appear to be political overreach. They should stand down and follow the recommendations of experts.

It’s time to let the water board remove the dams.