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Wetting 'the Dries'

Chris Dorst
Extending 5.5 miles downstream from Hawks Nest Dam, the Dries section of the New River gets its name from having most of its flow diverted into a 3-mile-long tunnel connected to a hydropower plant near Gauley Bridge.
Chris Dorst A minimum flow of 100 cubic feet of water per second flows out of Hawks Nest Dam to support aquatic life in the Dries.

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.

Several on-the-water trips on the Dries at various flow levels are planned to take place between May and October, using natural flows in excess of 10,000 cfs, rather than scheduled releases from the dam.

In addition to determining the optimum levels for intermediate-level recreational whitewaters, the study would look into ways of avoiding conflict with other recreational river users, like anglers and a growing number of climbers who enjoy bouldering in the Dries.

Potential improvements or additions to river access points, trails and parking areas would also be examined.

Among other studies Brookfield plans to begin later this year is one to determine the stream flow rate that best supports aquatic life in the Dries, examining five habitat types: deep pools, shallow pools, shoals, runs and cascades.

Brookfield plans to conduct 10 studies as part of the re-licensing process for the dam. Other studies include an examination of fish entrapment or mortality at the dam's intake areas; the presence of rare, threatened or endangered species in the Dries; a survey of shoreline and wetland habitat; and a survey of historic and prehistoric cultural resources in the study area.

A draft report on recreational flows in the Dries should be complete by May 2014, followed by a final report in May 2015. Brookfield's final license application is due on Dec. 31, 2015.

More information on the dam's licensing process, including documents, studies and timelines, is available at www.hawksnestandglenferris.com.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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