Groups Want Mon Locks Open for Recreation

The State Journal
3 October 2013
By Jim Ross

A bass tournament Oct. 5-6 will allow people to enjoy something that's a rarity in North Central West Virginia nowadays — the opportunity to take a boat from Morgantown to Fairmont on the Monongahela River.

"It's a tremendous river. The fishery's increased tremendously over the past several years," said Tim Mitchem, president of B.A.S.S. Nation West Virginia.

As water quality has improved, the river is supporting more vegetation, which supports more of the bait fish that bass eat, Mitchem said.

"In this area, it's one of the rivers people really, really enjoy fishing on. For tournament fishermen, you can do quite well on the river," Mitchem said.

But it's not something that has been enjoyed often since last fall, when the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the locks at the Opekiska and Hildebrand locks and dams to recreational boating and restricted hours at the Morgantown Lock and Dam.

But on this weekend, the locks will be open.

B.A.S.S. Nation West Virginia expects to have 55 to 60 boats in the tournament with two people per boat. Each participant from out of the area will likely spend $500 during the weekend, Mitchem said.
The tournament would not be possible without the locks being open, Mitchem said.

"Restricted to one pool, that's not enough water for us. We're appreciative to the corps for opening the locks for us," he said.

An organization that monitors water quality on the Mon says it wants to work with the corps to find ways to keep the locks open for recreation craft.

"Fishing issues are very much affected by the corps' closed locks," said Barry Palley, president of the Upper Mon River Association. "You can't have a competitive fishing industry in one pool."

The Morgantown Lock and Dam operates its lock for one shift a day five days a week. The locks at Hildebrand and Opekiska are totally closed to all traffic whether it be commercial or recreation.

But the Pittsburgh District does not have the money to staff the locks more than that, Palley said. The corps closed Opekiska and Hildebrand on Oct. 1, 2012, because there was not enough commercial traffic to justify their continued operation, and the corps does not count recreation traffic as sufficient reason to continue lock operations, Palley said.

The locks on the upper Mon had enough traffic until the Clean Air Act virtually eliminate the demand for the high-sulfur coal that once moved on the river, Palley said.

"The upper Mon River and the locks and dams are critical infrastructure for our commerce, recreation and economic development," he said. "The public and our institutions need to open Opekiska and Hildebrand and increase the operating hours of Morgantown."

Use of the upper Mon has changed, and the growth in recreation use of the river is reason enough to re-open the locks, Palley said.

"It's beautiful between (Morgantown) and Fairmont, the Mon River," he said.

But a person cannot take a pleasure boat or a fishing boat from Morgantown to Fairmont because of Hildebrand and Opekiska. Making the river more inaccessible is the fact there is no public access to the Mon in the Hildebrand pool, that is, the part of the river between the Hildebrand and Opekiska dams.

The UMRA offered to operate the locks itself, Palley said. The down side was the corps said the UMRA would be liable for anything that happened to the locks, no matter who was responsible. That stipulation took the agreement off the table, Palley said.

Then the corps suggested that the UMRA or another entity pay the corps to operate the locks. That is similar to an arrangement the Pittsburgh District has with a group on the Allegheny River, Palley said.

But last week the corps concluded it did not have the authority to take private funds to pay for the locks' operation, Palley said. So, the group is working with the West Virginia Public Port Authority to see if it can fund the locks' operation or be a pass-through agency for such funding, Palley said.

The UMRA is also working with members of the county commissions of Monongalia and Marion counties to see if either would be interested in the task, Palley said.

"Hopefully, one of those three would be one that makes the most sense in our work with the corps," he said.

Neither the corps nor the Public Port Authority responded to requests for comment.