$5 million project aims to restore brook trout
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Now it's up to nature.
After 13 months of digging, piling up rocks and painstakingly placing sunken logs, workers are just about finished with a $5 million effort to restore good brook-trout fishing to West Virginia's upper Shavers Fork.
"We'll know after we get some high water whether the work we did is doing what we wanted it to do," said Danny Bennett, the Division of Natural Resources' stream-restoration coordinator. "Our goal was to reproduce a semblance of the stream as it was at one time."
The "at one time" Bennett referred to was the late 1800s, before the Shavers Fork watershed was shorn of its timber for the first time. Back then the river flowed narrow, deep and cold, and brook trout thrived in its depths.
Conditions degenerated quickly after the lumbermen came. Logging crews floated huge rafts of logs down the river, and the rafts bulldozed rocks out of the riverbed and left the stream wide, shallow, flat and featureless. Without trees to shade it, the segment of Shavers upstream from Cheat Bridge became too warm to support temperature-sensitive brook trout.
Fisheries officials tried to replace the brookies by stocking rainbow and brown trout, both of which can tolerate higher temperatures. The stockings never took hold, though, mainly because the stream bottom had been so badly ravaged.
"The stream had a couple of major problems," explained Steve Brown, the senior DNR planner who spearheaded the restoration project. "It had no depth and it had very few large rocks and logs to hide fish and give them relief from the river's current."
DNR officials wanted to restore the river, but hadn't enough money to begin until former U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan earmarked $2.25 million for the effort. The grant, along with $100,000 from the Eastern Brook Trout Venture, allowed the agency to get started on Shavers by reestablishing easy fish passage between two brook-trout feeder streams and the river's main stem.
At about that same time, the Tygart Valley Conservation District, through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, was building a dam on Elkwater Fork of the Tygart River. The project's parameters required conservation district officials to mitigate the loss of the once free-flowing stream by doing watershed-restoration work elsewhere.
DNR officials approached the involved parties and suggested the mitigation work be done on Shavers Fork.
Plans were drawn up, a contractor was hired and $4 million worth of work began early last September. Using the railroad yard at Cheat Bridge as a staging area, crews from North State Environmental Inc. shuttled heavy equipment by rail to the four-mile stretch of river between Rocky Run and Second Fork and got busy.
"They put in single- and double-wing current deflectors, cross-vane structures, rock vanes, and a new sort of structure they call 'toe wood,' " Bennett said. "They did a limited amount of hole creation, and they put in benches that should help to narrow up the river channel.
"The hope is that narrowing and deepening the channel will break up ice during the winter and help to prevent ice scour. We're also hoping the deeper pools will help intercept [cooler] ground water and bring the stream's overall temperature down."
Crews also planted red spruce and aspen trees along the river's banks. Bennett said the resulting shade should also help bring water temperatures down.
"We should know within a few years whether the changes we made are having an effect," he said. "The reason we'll know -- and will know with great certainty -- is that researchers from [West Virginia University] have been up there for 10-plus years gathering data on the stream and its tributaries.
"On most projects, the best you can hope for is one year's worth of pre-project data. We probably have more background data on this than there is on any other research project in the East."
Researchers will monitor Shavers' water temperature to see if it begins to cool. They'll also survey the river's insect and crustacean life, and they'll monitor brook-trout genetics to determine when the fish return to the river's main stem from their current homes in tributary streams.
The new structures will be evaluated after next spring's snowmelt and high-water runoff to see if they accomplished what designers hoped they would. Most of the structures were designed to deflect high-velocity springtime flows in a way that scours out deep pools and pockets.
If the project proves successful, Brown said 15 more miles of upper Shavers might receive similar treatment.
"We think it could be done for about $15 million," he added. "That's a lot of money, but not an unreasonable number when you consider the potential benefits to anglers and tourism."
Brown said Shavers' unique nature -- a large river perched at an elevation greater than 3,000 feet, with few private landowners and with access only on foot or by rail -- could help make it a destination spot for wilderness-oriented anglers.
"It is, and always will be, a remote location," he said. "The people who fish it are going to be people who seek out and love to fish remote locations. We think Shavers could be very attractive to folks like that."
He said DNR officials are "very pleased" with the outcome of the restoration.
"They did a heck of a job up there. We love what the conservation district folks and the NRCS folks did up there, and they deserve every bit of credit they might get for it. Now we wait and look at how that restoration benefits [invertebrate life], fish, the stream and fishermen. A year from now, we'll know better what those benefits will be."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.