CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Field work is planned to begin in May on a study that will investigate whether "family friendly" whitewater rafting and boating is viable on the 5.5-mile long section of New River below Hawks Nest Dam known as "the Dries."
Other studies taking shape for the Dries in the coming months include an effort to determine the best minimum water release volume from Hawks Nest Dam to support downstream fish and other aquatic life, and to look into ways of adding or improving recreational opportunities in the remote canyon.
The studies are being done as part of the re-licensing process for Hawks Nest Dam, completed in the 1930s to divert water from the New River through a three-mile tunnel under Gauley Mountain to a powerhouse just upstream of Gauley Bridge. Construction of the tunnel, which left hundreds of workers dead from inhalation of silica dust, left the bypassed section of the New River with only a fraction of the stream flow it once carried.
Since 1987, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last licensed the dam and hydro project, its operator, now Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, has been required to maintain a minimum flow of 100 cubic feet of water per second through the dam to maintain aquatic life in the Dries. The power plant operates at capacity when 10,000 cfs is channeled through the tunnel. When stream flow above the dam exceeds 10,000 cfs, as was the case last weekend, excess water is released from the impoundment and whitewater recreation is possible in the Dries, most often by expert kayakers riding near-flood-stage surges.
Days when stream flow exceeds 10,000 cfs at the dam are unpredictable, and without scheduled releases from the dam, occur only about 100 days per year, rarely in the summer.
Whitewater rafting outfitters want the FERC re-licensing process to look into the viability of making a limited number of scheduled releases from the dam to offer their customers a new, intermediate-level stretch of river to run. Recreation and economic development are among issues FERC is required to examine in licensing hydro projects.
During a meeting in Charleston on Tuesday to discuss proposed study plans in conjunction with FERC's re-licensing process, Brookfield consultant Nancy Craig of HDR Engineering said that Brookfield plans to study "family friendly recreational opportunities" in the Dries. Flow rates ranging from 500 to 3,000 cfs would be examined, using a volunteer fleet of skilled, knowledgeable boaters to evaluate the recreational values of varying levels of flow, rate the degree of difficulty for rapids, and identify play areas and safety concerns.