Power outage means near-miss for state fish hatchery
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If not for quick action by state and power-company officials, the statewide electricity outage might have claimed as many as 300,000 lives Monday morning.
As it was, Mon Power crews got the juice flowing in the nick of time to save all but a few hundred trout in the state-owned Reeds Creek Fish Hatchery in Pendleton County.
"It was close -- way too close," said Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "We were within maybe an hour of losing every trout in the hatchery when the power company got service restored."
All seven of West Virginia's fish hatcheries were left without power after the June 29 "derecho" windstorm that toppled trees and interrupted electrical service throughout most of the state. All the facilities were operating on generator power until about 9:30 p.m. Sunday, when the generator at Reeds Creek failed.
"Having power is especially critical at Reeds Creek because it's the only hatchery in our system where the water gets re-circulated," Taylor explained. "If the pumps don't operate, we can start losing trout within just a few hours."
The pumps are especially critical during hot weather because warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, and trout require oxygen-rich water. With the water unable to re-circulate at Reeds Creek, the water quickly warmed and lost much of its oxygen.
Hatchery supervisor Dave Alt and his crew of workers labored through the night to get the generator's diesel engine restarted.
"We got it started, but it only ran about 10 minutes," Alt said. "We thought the engine might not be getting enough air, so we knocked a window out of the little block building that houses the generator. That kept us running for 15 minutes. We took a door off the building and got it to run for about 45 minutes."
Alt spent a fitful night at the generator, restarting it when it stopped. At 7:30 Monday morning, it quit altogether.
"I gave my wife, Tammy, a phone directory and had her start calling people. She called our local [natural resources] commissioner, she called [DNR] director [Frank] Jezioro's office, and she called Curtis Taylor.
Taylor vividly remembers the call.
"She said Dave had been up all night trying to get the generator started. She was almost in tears because the trout were about to start dying."
DNR officials made emergency appeals to the governor's office, the state Office of Emergency Services and the Pendleton County Office of Emergency Services. The appeals worked.
"We were looking for a generator with enough capacity to power the pumps, and we were trying to get in contact with people who could get a power-company crew out there," Taylor said.
In the meantime, Alt and his crew were trying to save as many trout as possible by replenishing the hatchery's water using small gasoline-powered pumps.
Word travels fast in small communities, and during the crisis Alt got a visit from a neighbor, Dennis Waggy, who offered the use of two home-sized generators.
Taylor called the crews' and the neighbor's actions "heroic."
"Our folks worked all night long and into the morning just trying to keep a bunch of trout alive, and the neighbor came over and offered the use of his own generators," Taylor said. "It's amazing -- but that's West Virginians for you."
A replacement generator was on its way to Reeds Creek by midmorning, but by then trout were already beginning to die. Taylor said fast action by Mon Power electrical crews saved the day.
"We were trying to get the generator moved to the hatchery when we discovered that the power company had come out and had gotten the electrical service restored," he said. "It took the crews less than an hour to get it turned back on."
Taylor estimated that 200 to 300 fish had already perished by 11 a.m. when power was reestablished, but added that the total could have been much, much higher.
"We could very easily have lost them all, from very young trout to large 'brood stock' trout," he said. "If we'd lost that many fish, it would have had a dramatic impact on trout stockings this fall and next spring."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.