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The sands of lime

RICHWOOD - The swift waters of Laurel Creek ate quickly into the Volkswagen-sized mound of gray sand.

Within minutes, most of the pile had disappeared, carried downstream to fertilize an otherwise infertile watershed. In early spring, when acid snowmelt swells the waters of West Virginia's trout streams, fisheries officials place similar heaps of finely crushed limestone sand in them to neutralize that acid, keeping trout alive in more than 50 creeks where they might otherwise die.

"We try to get the sand into as many streams as we can in the spring," said John Rebinski, the Division of Natural Resources biologist who coordinates the limestone program.

"It's the time of year when streams get a double impact - acid from snowmelt and from rainfall. It's when the streams [are most acidic], and acid is hard on trout and other fish."

Scientists have long known that limestone neutralizes acid, and in the 1960s DNR officials experimented with limestone treatment on Randolph County's Otter Creek. The treatment station, which tumbled limestone gravel inside specially constructed waterwheels to release the lime, often broke down or ran out of gravel.

But the trout didn't die.

"Something was keeping the stream alive," said Steve Brown, a DNR senior planner. "We discovered that the sand, or 'fines,' deposited on the streambed from the [waterwheels'] action were still neutralizing acid long after we shut the station down."

In a flash, biologists realized they might no longer need to build expensive liming stations to keep acid-damaged streams alive. They figured - rightly, as it turned out - that they could achieve similar results simply by dumping limestone sand into the creeks.

To prove their theory, they started dumping sand into several sterile tributaries of upper Shavers Fork. The streams soon developed thriving brook-trout populations.

"The first stream where we tried limestone fines on a large scale was [Tucker County's] Red Run in 1996," Brown said. "The program expanded from there."

Today, DNR officials spend about $350,000 a year to have limestone sand trucked to more than 70 locations on more than 50 individual streams. Brown said the sand program has restored fishing to 260 miles of formerly lifeless water.  

And those are just streams under the DNR's program. Brown said the state Division of Environmental Protection pays to have an additional 20 creeks treated with sand, which tacks 140 more miles onto the state's restored-stream total.

Most of the streams get more than one treatment a year. Rebinski said multiple treatments keep the streams' water chemistry more stable as the months pass.

To ensure that streams will have enough sand to maintain water quality in early spring, when brook trout eggs hatch and the fry swim up out of the spawning gravel, Rebinski makes sure each creek receives a large pile of sand in late fall.

"The swim-up stage occurs right at the time when acid snowmelt is at its highest, so it's important that we make sure we have enough sand there to protect the young trout," he explained.

On average, each treated stream receives a dozen 24-ton truckloads of sand each year. Rebinski said the sand comes from two quarries - Greer Limestone in Pendleton County and Boxley Materials in Pocahontas County.

"Those are the only quarries in the state that have limestone with the right amount of calcium in it," he explained. "For the sand to work, it has to be more than 90 percent calcium carbonate. Anything less won't [dissolve] fast enough.

"The sand-sized particles are small enough to be washed downstream by the stream's currents, where it eventually settles on the bottom, down in crevices between the rocks. When the water gets high, the sand gets kicked back up into the current and moved again and again until it finally breaks down and disappears."

The limestone sand program got a huge boost in 2003, when Virginia-based Dominion Resources contributed $2 million to the cause as part of a multi-state settlement for air pollution caused by the company's coal-fired power plants. DNR officials created an endowment with the money and use the endowment's earned interest to pay the program's yearly costs.

Brown said having a dedicated and reliable funding source "helps immeasurably, because liming is a permanent commitment."

"When we take on [a] stream, we do it with the idea we'll be continuing to treat it forever," he added. "We don't want to be in the business of restoring trout streams and then letting them die again."

DNR officials have also improved fishing in several state lakes by placing limestone sand into the streams that flow into them.

"Limestone treatment has turned Summit Lake into a year-round fishery. People are catching trout through the ice there, even in the dead of winter. We've also seen fishing improve in [Greenbrier County's] Lake Sherwood, [Babcock State Park's] Boley Lake, [Hardy County's] Rock Cliff Lake and [Barbour County's] Mill Creek Reservoir," Brown said.

"But Cheat Lake and the lower Cheat River are probably enjoying the greatest benefits from the limestone program. Half our total tonnage of limestone sand ends up in the Cheat River watershed. It's no surprise that bass fishing has improved dramatically on the lower Cheat, and bass tournaments are being held on Cheat Lake. Twenty years ago, neither of those things would have been possible."

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


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