JULIAN, W.Va. — To the untrained eye, West Virginia’s Little Coal River doesn’t look much different today than it did 10 years ago.
Looks can deceive.
The river is deeper, swifter and has much better fish habitat. With each passing year, its food chain gets a little stronger, a little more diverse.
The price tag has been high; so far the state and the mining industry have poured more than $5 million into creating an 18-mile series of man-made riffles, deflectors and fish-holding structures, all designed to flush sand and silt from the river’s main channel.
“So far we’ve put in about 200 structures,” said Roger Wolfe, an engineer with the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s the biggest stream-restoration project in the state, and maybe even in the eastern United States.”
Agency officials targeted the Little Coal for restoration because its problems stemmed from more than a century’s worth of erosion caused by mining and timbering. Over time, the riverbed became clogged with soil and sand washed downstream from non-reclaimed surface mines and skid roads. The silt smothered insect life and wrecked the river’s food chain.
“The river was wide and shallow, with a mostly sand bottom,” said Jeff Hansbarger, district fisheries biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources. “What we ended up with were ‘generalist’ species such as creek chubs and minnows.”
In 2007, DEP officials began funneling coal companies’ pollution-mitigation fees into a restoration project. A pilot project on a 2-mile section of river near McCorkle proved that the structures would do what engineers expected them to do. The main project was finished early in 2014.
“The idea behind these structures is to move sand downstream,” said Ross Tuckwiller, a watershed design specialist for the West Virginia Conservation Agency. “By narrowing the stream and forcing the water toward the center, we increase the current and flush away sand and silt and expose the stones on the bottom.”
Several types of structures have been used on the Little Coal — cross vanes, rows of large stones that focus the flow in the desired direction; alternating vane arms, rock-and-log structures that create an S-shaped current pattern; boulder-constructed riffles, which speed up the current; and toe wood, root balls anchored into the riverbank to prevent erosion and create fish habitat.
The structures are scattered throughout the river between Danville and Alum Creek, and they appear to be doing what they were built to do.
“West Virginia University has been monitoring the river’s biological health since 2008,” Wolfe said. “Their study shows that the river’s biomass is up, mainly due to an increase in bugs and bait fish. Basically what’s happening is that we’re rebuilding the food chain from the bottom up.”
With more food to eat, the river’s game fish — smallmouth bass, spotted bass, rock bass, walleye and muskellunge — are staging a comeback.
“More and more species are being caught, and some nice fish are being caught, too,” Hansbarger said. “I keep hearing nothing but good things from people who fish the river.”
Hansbarger attributed the improvement in fish diversity to the increase in habitat diversity.
“Fish don’t have to move around as much to find the kind of habitat that suits them best,” he explained. “They can find deep water, swift water or slow-moving water, and they can find rocky or woody shelter for themselves and for their offspring. Because they don’t have to move as much, they can devote more energy to egg production and spawning activity.”
Though the structures themselves are rather simple and straightforward, installing them is anything but easy. Tom Elkins, general manager of Appalachian Stream Restorations, said each structure must be precisely placed so that the current gets deflected in the proper direction and at the right velocity.
“Each piece has to be accurately laid out and surveyed in,” he added. “And for the wooden structures, a lot of cutting and grouping has to be done. And while all this is happening, we might get a rainstorm that causes the river to rise.”
Maneuvering heavy equipment around the riverbed comes with its own set of problems. Trucks and excavators sometimes sink into the sand and mud and have to be dragged back onto firmer footing.
“It’s a chess game, but we’re getting it done,” Elkins said.
The work on the Little Coal is almost finished, but a second phase of the project is in the works.
“The DEP has already committed $1 million more for work on the ‘mainstem’ Coal from the Little Coal’s confluence with the Big Coal downstream to Upper Falls [near Tornado],” Wolfe said. “We’re doing the engineering and design work right now. That project will involve about 100 additional structures.”
The idea, he added, is to flush sand and silt out of the lower end of the river and into the Kanawha, where it could be dredged out.
Hansbarger believes the work being done on the Coal could be duplicated on other streams that drain the state’s coalfields.
“I think this sort of habitat work would be great for the Guyandotte River, for example,” he said. “It certainly has done wonders for the Coal.