Since the start of a federal relicensing process for the Hawks Nest Hydro project, two industries with a significant economic footprint in Fayette County that seldom have reason to meet — tourism and silicon metal manufacturing — are both talking about what they need to succeed in the future.
For the whitewater industry, it’s more water released through Hawks Nest Dam. For West Virginia Manufacturing in Alloy, it’s all the power that Hawks Nest Hydro can produce.
But those in the whitewater industry say it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
“The vast majority of successful whitewater rafting only exists because of a partnership between hydro dams and recreation,” Brian Campbell of Adventures on the Gorge told Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) representatives at a Thursday meeting at Hawks Nest State Park.
“At times they are somewhat in conflict where it reduces generation capacities of the project in question. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to strike a balance.”
The whitewater industry in Fayette County, which has seen revenues flatten in recent years, is hoping to one day offer rafting trips down The Dries of the New River, dependent on controlled releases from Hawks Nest Dam.
Owned by Brookfield Renewable Energy, the hydro facility generates 25-cycle power for nearby silicon metal manufacturer West Virginia Manufacturing, known locally as Alloy. The hydro plant was specifically designed to power the furnaces at Alloy, which consumes the plant’s entire output.
So, are the needs of Alloy and the electric utility compatible with expanded opportunities for whitewater recreation on The Dries? Fayette County’s whitewater industry is calling for an in-depth study to find out.
“Let’s see what’s viable, what works, what is the optimum level on The Dries for a very family-friendly experience, and what are the impacts on the (Hawks Nest) dam and hydro generation when we do that,” says Campbell.
The FERC re-licensing process provides an opportunity to reassess how much water flows through The Dries, a 5.5 mile stretch of low water from the dam to Gauley Bridge.
The scoping document currently calls for a level 1 “desktop study” of appropriate flows, which the whitewater industry says is insufficient.
Long a world-class playground for kayakers when heavy rains wet the river, The Dries could also attract rafters if its current minimum flow of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) were expanded.
Campbell and his colleagues say The Dries could offer a “unique product,” unlike that offered on the tame Upper New, the raucous Lower New, or the raging Gauley. It would be something in between extremes, suitable for families.
“The products that are growing are the short-format, 5-6 mile, class 3 rivers scheduled on dam releases. That is the formula for success in this country,” he says.
The rafting companies are also asking for an accurate gauge that measures the river flow below the dam in cfs, which would allow them to better understand The Dries’ recreational potential.
Paul Buechler, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, says he wants to “focus on facts” during the re-licensing.
“Throughout this process, I think we’re going to hear that if Hawks Nest Dam gives up one drop of water, it’s going to impact...jobs and result in layoffs and possibly closure of the plant,” he says.
And indeed, at a previous meeting to provide comments to FERC, that was the message of Alloy representatives.
“We just don’t think that’s true,” says Buechler.
“What we believe is we’re asking for a very small amount of water for a very small period of the year, and what we intend to prove is that this small loss of water to the plant that would need to be purchased from the grid is not going to impact the cost of the manufacturing products and their competitiveness in the world markets.”
He told the commission that his resort hosted 100,000 visitors this year, with revenues approaching $15 million and a payroll of over 700.
“We want to minimize impacts on jobs and create a stronger Fayette County,” says the West Virginia Professional River Outfitters Executive Director, Bobby Bower.
“The rafting industry is just that, an industry, and it’s very important to the economy of Fayette County and a big part of the jobs created here in southern West Virginia.”
A man with some experience in both the energy industry and recreational tourism also spoke at Thursday’s meeting.
Mountaintop coal mining operations originally brought Rick Johnson, owner of River Expeditions, to West Virginia. But now he depends on a river for his livelihood.
“Coal used to drive our economy, but now tourism brings in about $20 million annually to our local economy, rafting being the predominant driver,” said Johnson.
“Tourism is growing every day and coal is declining every day.
“Tourism is the only resource that renews itself every day and the money stays here in West Virginia and doesn’t go to out-of-state corporations.”
He also wants to see The Dries re-watered to improve the fisheries and renew a stream bed that has seen unnaturally low levels for 80 years.
“I think it would be pretty cool to see an ecosystem come back,” he says.
Another proponent of healthy rivers who spoke at the meeting was Fayette County resident and “second-generation whitewater” enthusiast Heather Lukacs.
She called the relicensing a “critical opportunity for the next generation of people who live in this area” and says there is also economic value in quality of life.
“We’ve heard a lot from the development side and the economics, and I agree with everyone that that side is important,” she says.
“But something that brought me back to this area was thinking about healthy, safe rivers, being able to look at a river bed and see that there is vibrant life.”
To that end, she hopes FERC will consider an instream flow study to determine what flows would best protect aquatic habitat.
“I think a lot of West Virginians care about that, and I just want to make sure that’s on the table.”
The previous evening, representatives from West Virginia Alloys told FERC members that losing any power from the Hawks Nest Hydro plant would directly impact their ability to operate a silicon alloy manufacturing facility in Fayette County.
“Every cubic foot of water that goes over the (Hawks Nest Dam) spillway and not into production at the hydro plant adds to the production cost of the facility...which could have a severe impact on operations,” says Russ Lang, corporate energy manager for Globe Metallurgical, which owns West Virginia Alloys.
FERC hosted the meeting at Hawks Nest State Park to field public comments on the relicensing of the Hawks Nest Hydro project.
During that process, the agency will consider many factors, including whether to change the flows through the dam — currently set at a minimum of 100 cfs — into a low-water area known as The Dries, which stretches 5.5 miles between the dam and the hydro plant near Gauley Bridge.
The first step is a series of studies over the next several years, and FERC is now seeking comment on information gaps that need to be filled. Comments are due by Nov. 21.
On Wednesday, West Virginia Alloys made clear their position that any water released from the dam translates into lost production.
“We take every kilowatt that’s generated from Brookfield,” says plant manager Steven Pralley. “If you dump 30 megawatts of power over the dam for three months of the year, we’ll be completely shut down.”
Two of the five smelting furnaces at Alloy are unique in the world in that they require power at a frequency of 25 Hz. The others run off 60 Hz or a combination of both 25 Hz and 60 Hz.
The Hawks Nest Dam and its hydro infrastructure were designed and built by Union Carbide in the 1930s specifically to supply power to the Alloy plant.
“We are very much tied together,” says Dave Barnhart director of Mid Atlantic operations for Brookfield. “Whatever one does effects the other in either direction.”
In addition to the two smelters, water pumps, air compressors, cranes, and other equipment run on the 25 Hz power. The company buys 60-Hz power from the grid as well.
The plant operates best, says Pralley, when the hydro plant has plenty of water — from November through April.
As it is, he says he sometimes struggles during the low-water summer months to maintain enough 25-Hz power to keep the smelters in operation, meaning there’s no extra water to spare recreational paddlers.
“As the river flow declines and their (Brookfield’s) ability to produce declines, there are days when we actually suffer load and production losses because we don’t have enough power,” says Pralley.
The Alloy plant employs 250 full-time workers with an annual payroll of $13 million, according to Lang.
Fred Sizemore, president of the United Steelworkers of America local in Alloy, provided comments at the meeting, emphasizing “how important it is for that water to continue to flow through that hydro plant for sustaining jobs in Fayette County.”
Brookfield’s annual payroll for its hydro projects in Fayette County is $2.5 million and it spends $1 million of product from local suppliers, according to Barnhart.
Nic Spruill, a local climber, also commented in favor of keeping The Dries dry.
“There’s no place like The Dries as far as rock climbing is concerned,” he says. “Right now, 100 cfs is perfect for what we need.”
A group of approximately 20 people participated in a tour of the hydro facilities by Barnhart Wednesday morning, another component of the FERC scoping process. They included representatives from the National Parks Service, WVPRO, West Virginia Alloy, the National Parks Conservation Association, Brookfield consultants, Fayette County Commission, and others.