By C.V. Moore
“Wet The Dries” — that’s the goal of a coalition of groups that wants to see more water released from Hawks Nest Dam for whitewater recreation. With the dam’s license coming up for review, the group is pushing for a study of the economic impact of such a project, which they say would create 5.3 new miles of Class III whitewater in Fayette County.
The “Wet The Dries Coalition” is led by West Virginia Professional River Outfitters (WVPRO), an advocacy group for the whitewater industry. They are joined by nine other groups, including the New River Clean Water Alliance, Plateau Action Network and the Hydropower Reform Coalition.
Friday, the Fayette County Commission agreed to write a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees the licensing process for hydro dams, in support of a study. The county commission neither endorsed nor disavowed the project.
The utility operating the dam says it’s too early to comment on particulars of the proposal.
Hawks Nest Hydro LLC, a subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable Energy, is the licensee of the dam, which diverts much of the New River through a 3.5-mile tunnel underneath Gauley Mountain to a hydroelectric plant selling power to the West Virginia Alloys Inc./Globe Metallurgical smelting facility in Alloy.
“The relicensing process for the Hawks Nest hydropower facility includes many opportunities for dialogue with all stakeholders,” says David Barnhart, director of operations at Brookfield Renewable Energy Group’s Mid-AmeriRegional Operations Center.
“This is just one of what we expect will be many environmental, industrial, recreational, agency, public and energy proposals from a range of stakeholders. The relicensing process is designed to provide a forum for stakeholder input and to balance competing interests.”
“The Dries” is a 5.3-mile stretch of low water with a minimum flow of 100 cfs between the dam and the confluence of the New and Gauley rivers at Gauley Bridge, where the water re-emerges from the tunnel.
The coalition hopes to introduce conditions into the new license that would “provide seasonal flows downstream of the Hawks Nest Dam which are adequate for commercial and private whitewater recreation,” akin to controlled releases from the Summersville Dam during Gauley season.
They say their initial study concluded that 3,000 cfs released seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day would use 2.7 percent of the power-generating flows. They say this will be offset when a hydro plant in Glen Ferris comes back online in the near future.
A statement from the coalition given to the county commission emphasizes that “it is critical that no jobs are impacted by this project.”
“We support clean renewable power, local industry and a strong Fayette County. The smelting plant at Alloy is a cornerstone of the economy... It is our view that new jobs can be created and more Fayette County communities can benefit from expanding the recreational opportunities in the New River Gorge.”
Bobby Bower of WVPRO says the proposed study would also look at the potential environmental impacts of leaving The Dries dry for so long. Kathleen Tyner of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a member group of Wet the Dries Coalition, says it would be “great for the ecosystem.”
Bower calls the area around The Dries “the gem of the gorge,” but says access to the area is limited at the moment.
“It’s gorgeous from Chimney Corner to Gauley Bridge,” he says. “It’s a special place and it’s not very often that people can enjoy it.”
The whitewater wouldn’t be as wild as that of the Lower New, and might be more suitable for families with younger children. But that’s OK with the outfitters.
“The rafting business has been dwindling,” says Bower. “The areas in the country, especially in the East, that have mellower sections of Class III whitewater — their business is actually growing.
“The only ones growing in the whitewater industry nationwide are those that rely on these hydro releases. So it could be huge for the area.”
Already, two Facebook groups have been created that offer two different perspectives on the project. “Wet The Dries,” with 442 “likes,” has posted photos of what the area looked like before the dam was built in 1930 and assures that fishing and boating on Hawks Nest Lake would not be affected.
A “Keep The Dries Dry” group, on the other hand, has generated far fewer “likes,” but tries to make the case that the project would damage the community.
“There’s plenty of whitewater available out there,” reads a statement on the page. “Hydroelectric power needs outweigh those of boaters & fishermen... Allowing whitewater releases into the New River Dries will only encourage more boater-types and hippies to move here, and stress an already overloaded infrastructure.”
Perhaps jokingly, the statement continues, “Wi-fi will be siphoned off, cheap beer will become a memory and dogs will run amok in the streets of Fayetteville!”
At least one area rock climber has expressed sincere concerns that the water would cover up a favorite bouldering area. The Dries, near Cotton Hill, are also a fishing and recreational spot for locals.
Bower’s group will meet with representatives of the governor’s office soon to brief them on their proposal.
“It’s an interesting time and a big project to work on, so we’re real excited,” he says.
The FERC will hold two public scoping meetings on the project. The first, on Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at Hawks Nest State Park Lodge, is primarily for receiving input from the public.
The second, on Oct. 18 at 10 a.m. at Hawks Nest State Park Lodge, will focus on resource agency, Indian tribes and non-governmental organization concerns.
“We invite all interested individuals, organizations and agencies to attend one or both of the meetings, and to assist staff in identifying particular study needs, as well as the scope of environmental issues to be addressed in the environmental document,” says a statement from the FERC.
In addition to Brookfield, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia Attorney General, West Virginia Press Services and HDR Engineering are all associated with the FERC proceedings.
For more information on the “Wet The Dries” campaign, visit http://www.americasbestwhitewater.com/wet-the-dries/.
The public can follow the dam’s licensing process by e-subscribing to docket P-2512 at http://ferc.gov/docs-filing/esubscription.asp.
The key documents are the Pre-Application Document (PAD) and the Scoping Document (SD), which have already been filed. They can be reviewed at the eLibrary on ferc.gov. Search for the P-2512 docket and then click the “File List” link under the appropriate documents (labeled “NOI/PAD” and “Letter inviting interested agencies to participate in the meetings”).
The Scoping Document will also be available at the upcoming public meetings.
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