W.Va. Lakes to Rise in Response to Ohio, Mississippi Flooding

Effects from flooding on the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers are being felt all the way back upstream into West Virginia.

Charleston Gazette
3 May 2011
By John McCoy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Effects from flooding on the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers are being felt all the way back upstream into West Virginia.

For the next few weeks, Mountain State reservoirs will be used to hold water that otherwise might worsen the flooding downstream. Officials expect the waters of most West Virginia lakes to rise well above normal levels.

Recreational boating and fishing could be affected until well after Memorial Day.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Dave Meadows said the decision to fill the reservoirs above normal summer levels came down late last week, when it became apparent that flooding on the Ohio and Mississippi could reach historic levels.

"We were projecting the lower Ohio to crest more than 2 feet above the level it reached during the 1937 flood," said Meadows, chief of the corps' Huntington District water resources engineering branch. "At that point, we decided to restrict the outflows of all our flood-control dams to minimum levels."

Problem is, water is coming into those reservoirs at greater-than-minimum levels. The outflow Tuesday at Summersville Dam, for example, was 198 cfs, or cubic feet per second. The flow into the lake from the Gauley River was 1,350 cfs. The reservoir had risen nearly 1.5 feet in the previous 24 hours, and was up nearly 6 feet in the four days since corps officials decided to hold back the water.

Meadows expects those levels to go even higher. He said Summersville could eventually rise another 15 feet. Sutton Reservoir, now nearly 7 feet higher than normal, could get an additional 20 to 25 feet. R.D. Bailey Reservoir in Wyoming County, now running nearly 11 feet high, could rise another 15 feet.

Levels at Wayne County's East Lynn and Beech Fork reservoirs are running somewhat lower, both only 2 feet above normal. But Meadows expects them both to rise at least another 8 feet.

"We're going to be experiencing these conditions at all of our West Virginia [flood-control] projects but one, all of our Kentucky projects and some of our Ohio projects," he said. "The only West Virginia project we exempted was Bluestone, where there are dam-stability concerns."

Meadows said he "really doesn't know" how long the lakes will have to remain at flood levels. "When we first started, we were looking at maybe three weeks. It will all depend on [future] rainfall, and how quickly the Ohio and Mississippi floods recede."

Officials expect the backed-up reservoirs to have profound effects on boating, camping and fishing at several West Virginia lakes.

C.J. Hamilton, the corps' resource manager at Summersville, said boat-launch ramps at Salmon Run and the Summersville Lake Marina are already closed, and that the Battle Run ramp would likely close today.

"We also expect to close the Battle Run Campground by this weekend," he said.

News of the Summersville closures struck a hard blow to Eric Allen, who operates the Summersville Lake Marina.

"It means we have no business," Allen said. "We're going to lose a lot of money. Even after they do start letting [the water] down, it's going to take some time to get back to normal and for people to get their boats back into the water."

Allen said that if the corps' prediction of a three-week hold comes true, boaters would be hard-pressed to launch their craft by Memorial Day weekend, one of the year's most popular pleasure-boating events.

The news is almost as grim at Sutton Lake, where three launch ramps have been closed so far. Only the Bee Run ramp remains open. Keith Anne Nuckles, the ranger at Sutton, said if the lake keeps filling at its current rate, Bee Run should remain open for perhaps another week.

"It looks like we'll be able to get in the bass tournament we have scheduled for this weekend," she said. "But the lake averages two tournaments a weekend through the summer. If people aren't able to launch their boats, some of those tournaments are going to have to be canceled."

Both of Sutton's major campgrounds are closed due to the high water.

"An army of volunteers just finished getting them cleaned up for the summer season," Nuckles said. "Now they're going to have to do it all over again."

Boating at R.D. Bailey is completely shut down. The lake's lone launch ramp, at Guyandotte Point, is under several feet of water.

"We're still planning to open our campground May 23, if the water doesn't get too high," said resource manager Toby Wood. "But if we get a lot of water, it could end up affecting the opening."

The corps' Meadows said it isn't unusual for floodwaters to be stored briefly in West Virginia reservoirs, but added that it's "very unusual" to have to hold the waters for more than a few days.

"Frankly, we've never experienced anything like this before," Meadows said. "We're basing our projections [for water levels and the amount of time the reservoirs remain high] on normal weather and rainfall conditions. If the weather stays rainy or suddenly goes dry, those projections will change."

Reach John McCoy at johnmc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.