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W.Va.’s fish hatcheries deteriorate with time

JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Almost all the clay-lined ponds at West Virginia’s Palestine Fish Hatchery leak and will eventually have to be replaced. The plumbing system at the 70-year-old facility needs an upgrade, too. Officials place the cost of repairs at close to half a million dollars.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Water shouldn’t be leaking around the spring box at Mercer County’s Tate Lohr Hatchery. Like several state trout hatcheries, its spring-fed water source has found its way around the hatchery’s plumbing system, allowing precious water to go to waste.
JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
The rock-lined ponds of West Virginia’s Petersburg Trout Hatchery, built in the 1930s, require constant upkeep and repair simply to keep them holding water. Similar problems exist throughout the state’s aging fish-hatchery system.

West Virginia fisheries officials are learning a hard lesson: Bricks and mortar last only so long.

Many of the state’s fish hatcheries were built more than 50 years ago, and they’re showing their age. Some leak water; others can’t get enough water, or else have waste-elimination problems. All are showing the wear and tear that comes with advancing age.

“I think we’re faced with what a lot of other state fish and wildlife agencies are faced with,” said Bret Preston, fisheries chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “We had a lot of growth in hatchery infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s, but we didn’t put enough thought into how we would need to take care of those things 25 to 30 years into the future.”

Preston said the last 10 to 15 years have taught agency officials “a great deal about what is needed.”

“That’s true for both our warm-water and cold-water hatcheries,” he said. “We have the structure of a really good fish-production system, but in many ways that system needs rehabilitation and improvement.”

Even the DNR’s newest hatchery, a giant warm-water facility built just 13 years ago at Apple Grove in Mason County, needs significant repairs. The pumps that lift water to the hatchery’s ponds need to be replaced, and some of the heavy plastic liners that hold water in more than 50 acres’ worth of ponds have begun to leak.

Chris O’Bara, who supervises the agency’s warm-water hatcheries, said two of the five pumps don’t work and all of them are past their life expectancy.

“We’re looking at replacing all five pumps. The wells themselves still have some life in them, but soon they’ll need to be rehabilitated — and that’s going to cost $20,000 to $40,000 a well,” he explained. “The liners’ life expectancy is 10 to 15 years, so all of them will have to be replaced soon. There is 50 to 60 acres’ worth of liners in the facility, and replacement costs run $1.25 to $2 per square foot. You do the math.”

OK, we did. To bring Apple Grove up to snuff, DNR officials would have to pony up at least $2.7 million at the low end and $5.2 million at the top end. O’Bara said the work would probably have to be done in stages to keep the price tag from breaking the bank.

Problems at the agency’s other warm-water hatchery, at Palestine in Wirt County, are even more acute. Its 70-year-old plumbing system is in sad shape. The pump that feeds water from the nearby Little Kanawha River needs to be replaced. Many of the earthen-bottomed rearing ponds and their surrounding dikes need to be rebuilt.

“That plumbing system has been in place since the 1940s, and repairs to it are getting more and more difficult and expensive,” O’Bara said. “We’re looking to replace the entire system with a more efficient one. That pump is roughly 30 years old and needs to be replaced. And we’re looking at a total pond rehab job — taking out the material around the ponds, replacing it with a new packed-earth system, and replacing the piping.”

Bringing Palestine completely up to 21st-century standards isn’t feasible, O’Bara added. “That would cost several million dollars to do. The work we’re looking to do would cost about half a million dollars.”

The state’s seven cold-water hatcheries, used primarily to raise trout, are in similar shape.

Mike Shingleton, the man in charge of the state’s cold-water fisheries, described the entire system as “aging.”

“Three of them — Edray [in Pocahontas County], Ridge [in Morgan County] and Petersburg [in Grant County], were built in the 1930s. The newest hatchery, Tate Lohr, was built in the late ’70s. All of our hatcheries have problems that need to be addressed,” Shingleton said.

As is the case at Palestine, perhaps the most-needed repairs are to antiquated piping systems that carry water from cold-water springs to the hatchery’s rearing ponds and raceways.

“At all hatcheries, the ground shifts and causes pipes to leak,” Shingleton explained. “It eats away the soil in the ground, and that causes even more shifts. It even takes place under some of our concrete raceways. We have voids under some of our raceways at Reeds Creek [in Pendleton County], at Spring Run [in Grant County], and at Bowden [in Randolph County].”

“At Reeds Creek, which was built in the mid-1970s, we’ve already had to rebuild the lower ends of some raceways because they had voids under them.”

Another chronic problem is that most of the state’s trout hatcheries have ponds and raceways lined with concrete or, in some cases, laid with stones and lined with mortar.

“We’re constantly repairing the stone-and-mortar ponds to maintain their [watertight] integrity,” Shingleton said.

The sprawling Bowden Hatchery, a former federal hatchery deeded over to the DNR after its closure by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has some rather unique problems.

“When the four-lane section of Route 33 was built between Elkins and Bowden, it ruined one of the springs that supplies the hatchery. Since then, we’ve had to take water out of Shavers Fork to give us enough flow. Shavers Fork’s water is acidic, and it ate away at the raceways’ walls, and now there are lots of little voids and pockmarks that make the raceways extremely difficult to clean,” Shingleton said.

In addition, several hatcheries need repairs to the boxes or houses that collect spring water and feed it to the raceways.

“You can’t raise trout without water, and it’s a testament to the skill and ingenuity of our hatchery personnel that we’ve been able to maintain a high level of production for so long,” Shingleton said.

To find out just how much money would be required to completely overhaul the state’s entire hatchery system, DNR officials hired a consultant, HDR FishPro of Gig Harbor, Wash., to examine the system and estimate the cost.

“In 2009 dollars, the cost was close to $40 million,” Shingleton said. “Obviously, that’s not going to happen. The problem is getting enough money to do repairs properly rather than just putting Band-Aids on the problems.”

The man tasked with apportioning the money is Zack Brown, the DNR’s capital improvements coordinator. As a former district fisheries biologist, Brown understands the problems and wants to attack the highest-priority problems first.

“Being that we’re on a limited budget, I think all the repairs will take at least five to 10 years, and that’s if nothing else breaks in the meantime,” he said.

Agency officials have solicited bids from engineering firms to plan the repairs, and Brown said the bids are still in the process of being approved.

“Once the fixes are designed, we’ll go from there,” he added. “Over the next three years, I would put the price tag in the ballpark of $9 million to $12 million. The funding will be a combination of money from conservation-stamp sales on hunting and fishing licenses with federal-aid money. We’ll also need to find some new sources of money to use on this. It’s a daunting proposition.”

Daunting, maybe, but also desperately needed. Brown summed it up rather succinctly:

“We’ve reaped the benefits of these hatcheries for years, and we’re going to have to put some capital back into them.”

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