3 WV Dams Removed in 2016 to Improve Water Quality, Public Safety

Charleston Gazette-Mail
16 February 2017
By Rick Steelhammer , Staff Writer February 16, 2017

Three aging dams on the West Fork River in Harrison County were among 72 dams in 21 states removed last year to improve public safety, water quality and recreational opportunities, the conservation organization American Rivers announced on Thursday.

The dams removed in 2016 included the 111-year-old Highland Dam, 105-year-old Two Lick Dam and 94-year-old West Milford Dam, all of which once supplied the Clarksburg municipal water system but have not served that purpose for decades.

Removal of the three dams reconnected 490 miles of habitat in and along the West Fork and its tributaries to aquatic life, including such native fish species as smallmouth bass and muskellunge, and numerous freshwater mussel species, including endangered snuffbox and clubshell mussels. Demolition of the dams also improved safety for boaters and swimmers, since the structures produced undertow-producing standing waves known as hydraulic rollers. Three people died in 2000 when their canoe was swept into a hydraulic roller at the base of Highland Dam. Since that accident, the Clarksburg Water Board, the former owner of the dams, paid about $160,000 annually to cover liability and maintenance costs for the structures.

While the three dams removed from the West Fork last year were the first river dams in West Virginia ever to be deliberately demolished, 1,174 dams have been removed from rivers across the country during the past 30 years, according to American Rivers, which tracks and monitors dam removals, and provided technical or financial support for 18 of the dams removed last year. “Removing outdated dams has become popular across the country because it gives communities improved public safety, better water quality and more opportunities for local business and recreation,” said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers. Removing dams can also save lives, Irvin said. “Whether it’s a small dam that presents a drowning hazard to swimmers and boaters or an old dam in disrepair that threatens downstream communities if it fails, local leaders are removing dams to protect the public.”

Pennsylvania, which demolished 10 dams last year to lead the nation in the number of dams removed from its streams that year, was followed by North Carolina with eight dam removals and Minnesota with six.

“Returning a river to its free-flowing state by removing or replacing barriers can restore natural river flow and fish passage, connect waterways to their natural floodplains and estuaries, and reduce risk of flood damage,” said Callie McMunigal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Appalachian Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in White Sulphur Springs. “Free-flowing rivers sustain important natural processes such as sediment movement, nutrient cycling, maintenance of water quality and habitat, and absorption and dissipation of floodwaters.”The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with the Clarksburg Water Board to secure grant funding to pay for the last year’s dam removal project.

This year, the agency is working on a design to modify a fourth West Fork dam, Hartland Dam, which continues serve as a supply source for the Clarksburg Water Board. Plans call for Hartland to be modified to accommodate a structure atop the dam for fish, kayakers and canoeists to safely pass over the dam. Work is expected to begin on that project either late this year or in early 2018, McMunigal said. The USFWS has also begun the planning process for evaluating the possible removal of a dam on Hackers Creek at Jane Lew in Lewis County, and the Worthington Dam on the West Fork in Marion County.

The 72 dams removed across the nation last year restored more than 2,100 miles of free-running streams, according to American Rivers.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.