Nine days of recreational whitewater releases will be made annually from Hawks Nest Dam creating a new, intermediate-level rafting experience on the New River Dries.
The Dries — the 5.5-mile stretch of the New from which water is diverted to provide power for West Virginia Manufacturing’s silicon smelting plant at Alloy — has never been used by commercial outfitters due to its low warm-weather stream flows.
The whitewater releases were among requirements mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Dec. 22, in renewing a license allowing Hawks Nest Hydropower to continue operating the 85-year-old dam.
Other recreational improvements required by the FERC license include:
Building an improved river access site near the W.Va. 16 bridge at Cotton Hill that includes restrooms/changing rooms, picnic tables and additional parking space.
Developing a new take-out facility near the mouth of the stream at Gauley Bridge.
Installing an internet-accessible river gauge near Cotton Hill that provides real-time stream level data and two-day flow forecasts, allowing outfitters and others to schedule additional trips on the Dries when flow conditions permit.
Keeping open to foot traffic a 1.5-mile locked-gate road leading from W.Va. 16 to the tailwaters of the dam, and building a new 0.6-mile portage trail from the tailwaters to the top of the dam and the 6-mile-long reservoir it impounds.
The nine-day schedule of recreational whitewater releases is less than what was hoped for by many boaters and outfitters, and more than was sought by West Virginia’s Congressional delegation.
American Whitewater, the nation’s largest whitewater users group, initially called for 41 annual release dates, compared with three dates initially proposed by the FERC staff, and seven proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In early November, the state’s Congressional delegation urged FERC to permit no releases, until it could be proven they would not adversely affect production and jobs at West Virginia Manufacturing, the sole user of power from the Hawks Nest plant.
Under the conditions of FERC’s new license for the dam, six-hour recreational releases of 2,200 to 2,500 cubic feet per second will be made during two weekend days in late March, followed by seven weekend days, preferably on consecutive weekends, from late June through August.
Hawks Nest Hydropower, after consulting with state DEP officials and whitewater outfitters’ representatives, is to develop a tentative summer recreational release schedule by June 1.
Some whitewater dates on the Dries may be have to be postponed, since recreational releases can occur only on days when stream flow is high enough to allow at least 1,600 cubic feet per second to first be diverted into the 3-mile tunnel that feeds a power plant near Gauley Bridge. That’s the minimum water intake needed to meet the basic power needs of the Alloy plant.
Under the terms of the license, any make-up dates have to occur before the final weekend in August.
Whitewater outfitters sought recreational whitewater releases from the dam in order to offer their rafting customers a new product — a relatively brief but bouncy trip through intermediate level Class II and III rapids in a rugged, scenic canyon.
The state’s outfitters, with help from former representative Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., set a national precedent in 1984 by requiring recreational opportunities to be considered in licensing dams. That effort made possible at least 20 annual whitewater releases from Summersville Dam, creating the fall Gauley River whitewater season, which draws tens of thousands of paddlers to Nicholas County each September and October.
During extended dry periods in the New River Watershed, water flow through the Dries barely exceeds the 100 cubic feet per second minimum flow mandated under the terms of the dam’s previous license. The new license requires minimum releases of 150 cfs from July through February, 300 cfs March-April, and 250 cfs May-June to improve habitat for fish and other forms of aquatic life.
The increased minimum flow will also make it possible for outfitters to schedule guided trips in inflatable kayaks, also known as duckies, throughout the warm weather months, said Dave Arnold of Adventures on the Gorge.
“The increased minimum flow will make fishing better and also help us run trips with duckies any day we want,” he said.
Arnold said his company over the years has run a small, sporadic number of commercial raft trips through the Dries when stream conditions allowed it. The addition of nine scheduled whitewater releases “gives us a level of predictability we haven’t had in the past, and let us try out a new product to offer our customers,” he said. “It won’t be the Big Bang that changes everything for the industry, but it will put a new arrow in our quiver.”
While the releases will begin this year, Arnold said his company doesn’t plan to start marketing raft trips through the Dries until 2019, after put-in and take-out facilities are developed.
“It will be a fun trip through a really beautiful section of the river,” he said. “It’s a short trip, but some of the most successful trips for outfitters these days are two- or three-hour trips on rivers like the Pigeon and Ocoee in Tennessee.”
At times when flow volume in the New at Hawks Nest exceeds 10,000 cfs — the maximum intake the tunnel and power plant can handle — water spills through gates atop the dam, creating giant standing waves in the Dries, drawing kayakers freshwater surfers from across the nation.
“When some of the biggest waves are rolling, people fly in from everywhere to surf and play in them,” Arnold said.
The dam, tunnel and powerhouse were built during the Great Depression by Union Carbide to power its metal-smelting operation at Alloy. More than half of the 1,200 men who worked in the tunnel for more than two months died within five years of silicosis, a disease caused by the inhalation of sandstone dust.
Shortly before FERC granted the new license for dam, the agency raised its license length for dams from 30 years to 40. However, FERC ordered the license for the Hawks Nest Dam to remain valid for 46 years in order to have its next evaluation take place at the same time licenses for the small downriver hydro plants at London, Marmet and Winfield locks are up for review.