All Dams on River Are Not Equal: Design of Local Facility Causes Part of the Built Up Debris Field

Morgabtown Dominion Post
March 27, 2004
Guest Commentary
By Wallace Venable

Several aspects of the article "That Dam Trash" in the March 23 edition of The Dominion Post invite a "technical" response.

To paraphrase the article slightly, the Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh spokesman says the root of the problem are trash throwing West Virginians. The article also says that trash accumulates behind all dams.

Dams are not all alike, even on the navigable portions of the rivers of the Pittsburgh District.

The water flows under our dam. This is why floating trash accumulates so readily behind it. On many dams, water flow is over the dam, and most floating material passes without major impediment.

I do not doubt that the Pittsburgh District receives more complaints about dams in West Virginia than about those in Pittsburgh because only one of the five dams in the immediate area of that city is gated - at Emsworth. The others are all fixed crest, overflow types. The Corps Web site describes the environment of the Emsworth Dam as "an industrial complex." It is not particularly visible from local roadways.

If we had a fixed crest dam like those at Highland Park and Dashield, and like Dams 2 and 3 on the Monongahela, I don't think trash accumulation would be an issue here.

It is not unfair to say "the Corps created our trash problem" as a part of solving other river problems. Of course, in the 1950s there were few plastic products and many containers were returned for refilling. The current problem was not foreseen.

While there are good reasons for using a gated design, there are also advantages to fixed height designs. The Corps chose a fixed height for the newest one at Gray's Landing, just north of our state line.

Some of our trash is simply blown into the waterways by the wind, and another portion is washed into the streams by storm runoff. I don't know of evidence as to how the relative contributions of littering, careless waste handling, poor storage practices and "acts of nature" have been assessed. If we accept "littering" as the answer, it absolves many of us of other responsibilities.

The Monongahela River is under federal jurisdiction, and local communities may not take action on much of importance without federal authorization.

Certainly every little bit we do helps reduce the problem, for instance a bottle bill, but there is no easy fix. A serious remediation program will cost millions of dollars over the long term. For that reason it is important we study the problems and possible corrective measures thoroughly.

The old saw "marry in haste, repent at leisure" applies to technological as well as personal relationships.

WALLACE VENABLE is the chief technical officer for the Upper Monongahela River Association. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.