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.