Outfitters planning to wet the Dries
GAULEY BRIDGE, W.Va. -- Rafting outfitters see a 5.5-mile stretch of the New River below Hawks Nest Dam as a link to new growth. They want a detailed study to determine whether the 80-year-old dam can both accommodate industrial power needs and produce commercial-grade whitewater.
Known as the "Dries," the section of New River between Hawks Nest Dam and its associated power plant on the outskirts of Gauley Bridge has most of its flow diverted through a three-mile-long tunnel through Gauley Mountain.
Water channeled into the tunnel drops 167 feet on its way to the turbines at Gauley Bridge, where an average of 541,845 megawatt hours of electricity is produced annually for the West Virginia Alloys Inc. smelting plant, a few miles downriver at Alloy. The dam and tunnel were built by Union Carbide to provide electricity for the smelting plant.
The tunnel is the site of one of America's worst industrial disasters. At least 476 men, and possibly hundreds more, died from acute silicosis from inhaling dust from silica-bearing sandstone while drilling through the mountain.
"The dam was basically built without a license," said Larry George, a Charleston lawyer and former state official who now represents the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters (WVPRO).
Union Carbide was initially issued a license to build and operate the dam by the state Public Service Commission, but as the dam was under construction, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only federally issued licenses were valid.
Construction proceeded without a license until 1937, when Carbide "applied for and got a 50-year federal license after the dam was built," George said. When the license came up for renewal in 1987, "none of the environmental reviews we have today were required."
A 30-year license renewal was issued that required the operator of the dam to release a minimum flow of 100 cubic feet per second into the Dries "without much study of what would best serve the aesthetics, ecology and recreational uses of that section of the river," George said.
Staff at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently began to prepare for a new license when the dam's current one expires Dec. 31, 2017. The FERC staff will eventually prepare an environmental assessment for the project that is expected to take into consideration such concerns as fishery management and stream ecology in the Dries -- as well as possible additional uses of the dam.
"This will be the first time this project has ever really been assessed for interests other than its ability to provide power to the Alloy plant," said George, a former state Division of Energy commissioner and Division of Natural Resources deputy director.
"While it's critical for the dam to make power for the Alloy plant, we want to see if it's feasible for them to share a little and have scheduled releases from the dam for commercial rafting and private boaters," said Bobby Bower, executive director of the river outfitters group.
FERC's current requirement -- 100 cubic feet per second release from the dam into the New River's channel -- "is really just a trickle," said Bower.
"But if you get 1,500 to 3,000 cubic feet per second going through the Dries, you have a fun, intermediate-level river run that would make for an ideal half-day rafting trip," he said.
For Southern West Virginia's stagnant to slightly declining whitewater industry, being able to offer customers a new stretch of river to paddle would be a shot in the arm.
"In places across the country where you're seeing growth in the whitewater industry, you'll find shorter, half-day trips and a little mellower water," Bower said. "We think this could be our missing link. It's something we don't have in this part of West Virginia."
WVPRO would like a study to determine what release levels would be needed to provide a quality whitewater experience through the Dries, and whether such releases could be made without disrupting the power production needed to operate the Alloy plant.
The outfitters hope it will be feasible to receive three or four hours of augmented flow over the dam for several days a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Scheduled releases from dams to accommodate whitewater interests are nothing new, Bower said, citing Gauley River releases from Summersville Dam, and dam-enabled rafting in the Pigeon, Ocoee and Nantahala rivers in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
During FERC scoping meetings held in October, representatives of West Virginia Alloys said that any diversions of water over the Hawks Nest Dam not caused by flooding would add to their production costs by reducing generating capacity.
"We take every kilowatt that's generated" from the Hawks Nest power plant, Alloy plant manager Steven Pralley told FERC officials, according to a Beckley Register-Herald account of one of the meetings. "...As the river flow declines and their ability to produce power declines, there are days when we actually suffer load and production losses because we don't have enough power."
A Brookfield Renewable Energy subsidiary, Hawks Nest Hyrdo LLC, is licensed to operate the Hawks Nest dam and hydro plant. Brookfield also owns a newly refurbished and upgraded hydro plant at Glen Ferris, which recently resumed supplying power to the Alloy plant after being out of service since 2004. The added capacity of the Glen Ferris plant should be able to offset any reductions in power production caused by diversions from Hawks Nest Dam to accommodate whitewater interests, George said.
The Alloy plant also buys power off the grid when power production from the Hawks Nest hydro plant is insufficient.
George said Brookfield has proposed a Level 1 "desktop" study, using existing data and limited interviews, to provide FERC officials with the information they need to move forward with the licensing process. He said WVPRO seeks a Level 3 study, involving reconnaissance of power production and whitewater quality at multiple stream levels.
He said Level 3 studies are commonly used in the license evaluation process for hydroelectric projects across the country.
"We want a scientific assessment of the flows needed to support a whitewater industry in the Dries," said George. "A Level 3 study would do that, and would presumably also include information on flows needed to support the fishery and other aquatic life as well as examine the power needs of the Alloy plant."
"Let's have a real study and learn what the facts are," said Tom Sussman of TSG Consulting, a public relations firm representing WVPRO in the licensing process. "The bottom line is that the river is a public resource and belongs to everyone. For 80 years, the smelting plant and hydro plant have benefited exclusively. Maybe it's time the resource was shared. I think a happy balance can be found."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.