Demolition of First of Three West Fork Dams Underway

Charleston Gazette Mail
29 March 2016
By Rick Steelhammer, Staff Writer

WEST MILFORD — A dozen people stood on the deck of the W.Va. 27 bridge over the West Fork River at the eastern entrance to this Harrison County town last Tuesday and gazed at a spot a few hundred feet upstream, where the operator of an excavator-mounted jackhammer pounded out chunks of concrete from 94-year-old West Milford Dam.

“The dam was beautiful, but this will open up so much more of the river to fishing,” said Chad Albright, who lives a short distance upstream of the dam and was among those watching it being demolished. “Fish need water that’s free-flowing and well-oxygenated. Before this, the only place you could catch fish in this section of river was below the dam. And this will open up so much more of the river to recreation. My family’s already looking into buying kayaks.”

“There goes our old swimming hole,” said another onlooker, Kathy Rupe Garvin of West Milford. “Before there were swimming pools, the pool behind the dam was where we would go to swim. There was a tree with a swing hanging off a branch and steps going up the trunk to reach it. We would swing out, jump off, and swim to the dam. Since long before I was born back in 1950, it’s been a part of the lives of the people who have lived here. I’m crying tears to see it go.”

After seven years of planning, grant-writing, regulatory check-offs, public hearings and heated controversy, West Virginia’s first stream enhancement dam removal project is underway. Demolition of the West Milford Dam will be followed in coming weeks by the removal of two other non-functioning former West Fork water supply dams — the 105-year-old Two Lick Dam and the 111-year-old Highland Dam.

The Hartland Dam, which continues to supply Clarksburg’s water system, will remain standing and receive an improved fish passage channel. The $400,000 project will reconnect nearly 40 miles of river for fish, mussels and other wildlife species, while eliminating safety hazards caused by the undertow effect accompanying standing waves created at the downstream base of each dam. Water quality will also be improved by having huge accumulations of sediment — some of it contaminated by pollutants — now found in the pools behind the dams, gradually flushed away to uncover the stream’s stone-cobbled bottom, allowing water-filtering freshwater mussels and aquatic insects favored by fish to thrive.

“Some of the dams have three miles of ponded, fairly stagnant water behind them,” said John Schmidt, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s West Virginia Field Office. “Removing these dams will provide miles of continuous riffle and pool habitat that will improve recreational fishing and boating, allow mussels and other wildlife in and along the river to flourish and improve water quality.” Smallmouth bass and muskellunge, the state’s largest sport fish species, are particularly expected to benefit from the dam removals, according to Schmidt.

On Tuesday, as the excavator worked its way across the width of the eight-foot-tall West Milford Dam, the 384-acre-foot pool behind it slowly continued to recede. After the dam was first breached on Monday, the water level in the pool dropped about two feet. By mid-day Tuesday, another six inches of the pool had drained, bringing it that much closer to its original channel. Upstream of the demolition site, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Division of Natural Resources personnel took to the river in canoes to rescue mussels stranded in the newly exposed stream banks and collect trash as it emerged from the backwater.

“The West Fork was once one of the best mussel streams in the United States,” said DNR Wildlife Diversity biologist Janet Clayton, who heads the state’s mussel monitoring and restoration effort, shortly after her crew rescued a marooned ladyfinger mussel from a newly drained section of the West Milford pool. “Five species historically known to have been here are now listed as endangered.” While more than 20 species of mussels could be found in the West Fork before the dams were built, only a half-dozen now live in the stream, including the endangered snuffbox mussel. “Anything we can do to restore the natural flow of the river will help them help them recover,” Clayton said.

In order to flourish, mussels need a sediment-free streambed consisting of cobbled rocks and gravel, and a sustained population of fish to serve as hosts during the development of mussel larvae. Once mussel eggs advance to the larval stage, they attach themselves to the fins and gills of fish, and form cysts in the host’s flesh in which they develop into microscopic juveniles before dropping into the water and, hopefully, landing in a site with suitable habitat for continued growth. With host fish being able to travel through more territory with the removal of the dams, juvenile mussels will be able to establish new colonies and increase their population and range in the West Fork and its tributaries.

“Since mussels have such a precarious life cycle, it will take decades for the population to approach what it once was,” said Clayton. An enhanced mussel population has practical, as well as aesthetic, benefits. “Each mussel filters impurities out [of] five gallons of water each day,” Clayton said.

“And they live a long time,” added DNR biolgist Craig Stihler, who heads the state’s endangered species efforts. With life spans averaging 10 to 40 years, mussels establishing new colonies in the West Fork “will be filtering water for decades.”

About one mile upstream from Clayton, Stihler and their mussel-gathering crew, Nick Millett of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was leading a canoe-borne crew picking up newly emerged trash.

“We got a mud-covered TV that must weigh 150 pounds, but so far, we haven’t seen as much trash as we thought we would,” Millett said.

On Saturdays, until the newly exposed shoreline is cleared of debris, Fishing Report WV and the Department of Environmental Protection’s REAP program will team up with volunteers to continue the trash removal effort behind the West Milford Dam.

The dam removal project now underway traces its roots to a 2000 boating accident at the Highland Dam, during which three people drowned when their canoe was swept into a hydraulic roller at the base of the dam. Similar undertow-producing standing waves are found at the other non-gated, run-of-river West Fork dams slated for demolition, all owned by the Clarksburg Water Board. In the wake of the drownings, the water board looked at structural solutions to improve safety and reduce the agency’s liability, including the removal of the three no longer used water supply dams. But instead of removing the dams, the board opted to keep the dams in place and spend more than $250,000 to modify two of the dams by placing rock along their downstream bases in an effort to impede the formation of hydraulic rollers.

Since then, the water board has spent an average of about $160,000 annually to cover liability and maintenance costs for the dams. In an effort to dam that cash flow, the water board began working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 to explore the possible removal of the dams. After an environmental assessment of the concept was completed in 2010, the water board voted to authorize the federal agency to proceed with developing a dam removal plan. A $140,000 grant started the planning and permitting process, and last year, Fish and Wildlife secured a $400,000 grant to complete the dam removals.

Since the dams and the tranquil pools they created had been iconic elements of the landscape along the West Fork between Weston and Clarksburg for more than a generation, many residents of the area took issue with their removal. Last July, a new officer elected to the water board provided the swing vote needed to explore the possibility of turning the three dams over to the Harrison County Commission, which had expressed an interest in keeping them in place. After a public meeting; an analysis of possible alternatives to demolishing the dams, which ranged from $330,000 to $450,000 for two of the three structures; a look at continued liability issues; and Fish and Wildlife’s reluctance to drop a project that had already been planned and funded, with more than $140,000 already spent; the water board and the county commission late last year “decided to change directions and take us up on our standing offer to remove the dams,” Schmidt said.

While the West Fork dam removal project is a first for West Virginia, more than 1,000 unused or outdated dams have been removed at sites across the nation, including 310 in the past five years, to improve recreation and wildlife habitat. Under the West Fork project, stream access at the former dam sites will be improved.

“Here, we’ve cleared out shrubbery and built a parking area, and it will be a lot easier for people to get down to the river than it is now,” said Callie McMunnigal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was overseeing work at the West Milford Dam. “All the concrete from the dams will be crushed into gravel for use at boat access points and on Harrison County trails and the Clarksburg Fitness Trail.”

It is expected to take about two months to complete the demolition of the three dams. Future dam removal projects are being considered for a site on Hackers Creek, a West Fork tributary, and for the Worthington Dam on the West Fork in Marion County.

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