Cheating Fate

With a little help from its friends—OK, a lot of help—the once-dead Cheat River is now very much alive.

Morgantown Magazine
11 August 2014
Written by Pam Kasey
Photographed by Elizabeth Roth

In the spring of 1994, a hill in Preston County exploded. Millions of gallons of bright orange mine drainage overwhelmed Muddy Creek, then surged into the Cheat River at Albright. There was so much pollution, and it was so acidic, it killed fish 15 miles downriver.

Any recovery that took place in the year that followed was wiped out by a second blowout in ’95. “There were no fish in the river at all,” says longtime resident, fisherman, and paddler Ron Cunningham. “The blowouts killed all the aquatic life.” The recreation, too. The Cheat Canyon had been one of the most popular commercial white water rafting destinations in the country. Rafting trips declined by half.

Twenty years later, ask people in Morgantown about the Cheat River and you could get answers ranging from “I took my kids tubing there last weekend” to “amazing white water” to, yes, “great fishing.” The Cheat is back from the dead. “We’re having a revival,” says Amanda Pitzer, executive director of Friends of the Cheat, the organization working to preserve the river. “The water quality is better than it’s been in 50 years, and more people are coming to the river. It’s a comeback story.”
Overcoming the Past

To fully appreciate the lush, hale beauty of today’s Cheat River, you have to understand the exploitation in its past. Like most of the state’s forested highlands, the watershed was logged in the 20th century. Clearcutting in the upper reaches led to wildfires, soil erosion, and sedimentation and warming of the cool mountain streams.
While the lower watershed was timbered, it was even more heavily mined for coal—from seams that, unfortunately for water quality, produce acidic, metals-contaminated drainage when exposed to air and water. The blowouts were, in one sense, a gift: the impossible-to-ignore extreme of an acid mine drainage problem the river had suffered for decades. By the turn of the 21st century, agencies had cataloged more than 60 abandoned mine sites discharging acid drainage into the Cheat’s streams.

Trees grow back. Today, mostly by virtue of time having passed, the watershed is more than 80 percent forested. Overcoming the legacy of mining, on the other hand, requires fundraising and grant writing, property deals, expert design and engineering, and long-term maintenance. Outraged locals formed Friends of the Cheat (FOC) in 1994 to do just that. The organization and its partners have installed 15 treatment systems at a cost of more than $9 million and have two more planned for 2015. Through the organization’s famously collaborative work, fish have returned to all of the Cheat mainstem and even to some mine drainage-damaged tributaries. And with the fish, other wildlife are returning, too. “Now we’ve got eagles,” Ron says. “And bears.”

Soon, a 27-mile stretch of the river, from Pringle Run below Rowlesburg all the way to Cheat Lake, is expected to come off the state’s list of impaired waters. “That means the pH is healthy enough to sustain fish the whole way through the river,” Amanda crows. “I would say a lot of old-timers around here never thought that could happen.”

Cheat as Playground

The Cheat watershed now offers hundreds of miles of thriving streams and riparian landscapes for paddling, fishing, hiking, camping, and even winter recreation. The river and its tributaries lavish us with every kind of Appalachian stream experience. In the upper watershed, Blackwater Falls inundates the senses, while Shavers Fork’s remote pools and riffles hold some of the best trout fishing anywhere around. Where the forks meet at Parsons, the mainstem starts out calm and gentle; below Rowlesburg it shimmers almost surreal, with giant boulders strewn across the wide, shallow riverbed for miles.

Farther downstream, some of the Cheat’s most dramatic landscapes are right in Morgantown’s backyard. The river squeezes from hundreds of feet across to just 10 in some places, as it rollicks and roars through Cheat Canyon from Albright to Jenkinsburg Bridge. The view from Coopers Rock State Forest overlook takes your breath away. And downriver, the wildness gives way to relaxing flatwater on the 13-mile-long Cheat Lake reservoir before entering the Monongahela River just over the Pennsylvania border.
It’s the paddling in particular that earned the Cheat River wide renown, seen in FOC’s roster of dues-paying members from as far away as California, Saskatchewan, and New Zealand. Above a low-head dam at Albright, the Cheat is said to be the longest stretch of undammed river east of the Mississippi—meaning long paddling trips are possible on a river that flows freely, in its natural state. Class I to III rapids in the Narrows make for good family fun, while Class III to IV and, at highest water, V, rapids in the wild Canyon thrill even the most experienced paddlers.

A Recent Success

An even longer conservationist effort paid off this past spring. Before the Cheat Canyon was killed by acid mine drainage in the ’90s, before it drew thousands of paddlers from states away to its white water in the ’80s, the canyon was already a target for conservationists who wanted to protect it from any more timbering. “Folks have always talked about the Cheat Canyon as a unique wild place with rare animals, endangered and threatened species, and a rugged landscape that should be protected,” Amanda says. She refers especially to the federally threatened flat-spired three-toothed snail that lives in the canyon and nowhere else. “The canyon is the background for the beautiful overlook at Coopers Rock and the canyon’s water quality affects that at Cheat Lake, so it’s a critical place.”

After several failed attempts over the decades, The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund succeeded in April 2014 in purchasing nearly 4,000 acres from timberland investment organization The Forestland Group. The purchase represents almost every part of the canyon, rim to rim, that wasn’t already protected in some other way.

“Everybody who’s guided down there has sort of had this dream that that place would be protected,” says Adam Webster. Adam describes himself as “kind of a Cheat weirdo—and not the only one.” He guided rafting trips down the canyon from after the second blowout in ’95 through about 2003 and guesses he’s been down the river maybe 100 times, and he sees the improvement in the water quality and the return of insects, fish, and other wildlife. He’s also hiked, hunted, and photographed the canyon. “There’s something very wild about the Cheat Canyon,” he says. “It used to be this weird juxtaposition of this absolutely stunning, eye-catching river cutting through the canyon, but so polluted. It’s a very remote place so, to really understand what the significance of the river’s recovery is, you have to go down in there and experience it.”
That will soon be easier than ever. The new land purchase will be managed by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and will be open to the public. FOC looks forward to seeing the Allegheny Trail re-routed back through the canyon and to creation of a mid-canyon access point for boating that would allow for shorter trips.
The Cheat’s Future

While the Cheat is cleaner than it’s been in decades, not all of the sources of acid drainage are being treated yet. What’s left is more expensive than what’s been treated in the past, at a time when federal and state resources for treatment are dwindling. And the remaining sites are more complicated, too, sometimes calling for controversial and outside-the-box thinking. “Fickey Run is so bad, we’re never going to restore that stream. We’re really looking at in-stream dosing—releasing lime slurry directly into the stream to see benefits downstream in Muddy Creek and the mainstem,” Amanda says. “That would require collaboration across the board and a lot of money but, until we can tackle Fickey Run, which is a quarter of the entire pollution load on Muddy Creek, we can only get so far.”

But with the river revived from the dead, FOC has also been able to focus on new ways to enjoy the watershed. The organization launched an Upper Cheat River Water Trail of family-friendly flatwater from Hendricks to Rowlesburg in 2013, now with nine access points and more in development.

Driving times from Morgantown:

And the long-anticipated Cheat River and Kingwood-Tunnelton rail-trails, in the works for more than a decade, could come to fruition at any time. “In the last year and a half we’ve leveraged a half-million dollars for the Kingwood-Tunnelton project, a lot as a result of the Northern Railroad water tower getting on Preservation Alliance’s list of endangered properties in 2012,” Amanda says. “We’re totally funded to purchase both trails now and we have the support of the community. If we can work it out with CSX and get the documents signed soon, we could have small sections of hikeable-bikeable trail by the fall of 2015.”

The best hope for the Cheat’s future is for people to get out on the river and learn what makes it special, Amanda says. The designation of Cheat River rafting as “WildEST Outdoor Activity” in the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors’ Bureau’s 2014 ESTY Awards will help—but the recovering river remains a largely undiscovered playground. Amanda encourages people to get out and do anything on the Cheat. “Come and visit the wilder side of Morgantown.”

How to Enjoy the Cheat

Sun worshipper? Grab a beach towel and find a big rock along the river on State Route 72—the Cheat River Byway—south of Kingwood.

Like to watch? During low flow periods, go to the part of the Cheat Narrows called “Fascination Alley” and watch the squirt boaters paddle the currents under the surface of the water. Or take in the view of the Cheat Canyon from Coopers Rock overlook.

Want to learn? Padlz at Bruceton Mills, right off Exit 23 of I-68, gives paddling lessons. Make a night of it: Thursday nights there’s free music at the dam, and you can get some pizza and ice cream in town.

Got your own equipment? Check out the Upper Cheat Water Trail. You can tube it in low water, or take your own canoe or inflatable kayak when it’s higher.

Prefer to fish? The Water Trail section, above Rowlesburg, is also great for smallmouth bass. The area is stocked with rainbow and brown trout, too.

Need a rush? Among West Virginia outfitters, Blackwater Outdoor Adventures offers family-friendly trips on the Narrows and Cheat River Outfitters guides paddlers through the canyon.

Join the celebration. Supporters celebrate the year’s successes with a day of music, food, and river fun at Cheat River Festival every May near Albright.