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Corridor H construction could help a troubled stream

DAVIS, W.Va. -- Corridor H's environmental shoe is switching to the other foot.

The superhighway being built through West Virginia's Allegheny highlands might well, a few years from now, be recognized for solving a major environmental problem instead of causing one.

"In the not-too-distant future, people will be fishing for trout in Beaver Creek," said Steve Brown, stream restoration program manager for the state Division of Natural Resources. "That will be a huge environmental victory, and the Division of Highways should get credit for making that happen."

Decades ago, Beaver Creek was a trout stream. Nowadays it's not. Its waters, contaminated by coal-mine drainage, are too acidic to support all but the hardiest forms of aquatic life.

That's about to change.

Construction is well underway on the highway's next segment, a 16-mile stretch between Davis and Scherr. The four-lane road, which will replace the existing W.Va. 93, parallels Beaver Creek for more than eight miles.

To help mitigate the effects of the road's construction, Division of Highways officials purchased all the land between the road and the creek, plus the land that holds the creek itself, for the express purpose of restoring the creek's water quality and re-establishing a trout population.

"Our plan is to build four access sites where the creek could be treated with limestone sand," said Carl Nucilli, the project's environmental monitor.

Similar treatments have restored acid-damaged streams in Upshur, Pocahontas, Randolph and Nicholas counties. The DNR's Brown believes they will work in Beaver Creek, too.

"The expectation within our agency is to get [the water quality restored] and to manage Beaver Creek as a seasonally stocked trout stream," he said.

Brown, who lived in the Davis area in the 1970s when the Beaver Creek watershed was still being heavily mined, said he would never have believed the stream could be restored.

"I would have said, 'No way.' At that time, it was an orange-bottomed slough, incapable of harboring any kind of life."

The DNR's success with other streams eventually led Brown to suspect that Beaver Creek might respond to limestone-sand treatment. When highways officials decided to route Corridor H through the watershed, Brown suggested a cooperative effort to bring the creek back to life.

"They thought it was a good idea," Brown said.

According to project manager Brandon Kline, construction on the Davis-to-Scherr segment should wrap up in June 2015. Brown said there's a good chance the DNR would begin treating the stream well before then.

"We have to get the water quality good and stable before we can even think about putting trout in there," he said. "We can't afford big fluctuations in the amount of acidity. If the pH drops much below 5.0, trout go belly-up."

As part of the environmental mitigation for the entire Corridor H project, highways officials contributed $1 million to a DNR endowment fund that pays for acid-treatment projects. Brown said interest from the fund's principal would pay for Beaver Creek's treatments for as long as they are needed.

Restoring stream quality is only one part of the Division of Highways' multi-layered approach toward environmental enhancement in the watershed. Other plans include a recreational trail to be constructed on an old railroad bed that parallels the highway and a rock-climbing park slated for a construction-fill area near Davis.

Charlie Riling, special projects manager for the Division of Highways, said the rail-trail has long been part of the Corridor H plan, but won't be completed until Congress approves its funding.

"It's on the back burner right now," Riling added. "Getting the funding might take a few years, but the trail will eventually get done."

The DNR's Brown said the trail, when built, would give elderly anglers easy access to Beaver Creek, which, because of its gentle gradient, would be relatively easy to walk or wade.

"We also plan to use logs and root balls -- taken out and stored when the highway's right-of-way was cleared -- to build trout habitat in parts of the stream where habitat is poor," he said.

Since crews began construction on Corridor H in the 1970s, environmentalists have criticized highways officials for routing the road through some of the state's most scenic and environmentally sensitive areas. Brown said the work along Beaver Creek shows a different side of the project.

"This is a case of recreational development made possible by the construction of a four-lane highway. People need to know the story of how this happened."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.

 


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