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After decades of work, life has returned to West Virginia’s Cheat Lake.

Acid mine drainage and acid rain eliminated most of the fish there. In the 1980s, nine-tenths of the fish that managed to hang on were bullhead catfish or white suckers, species that anglers ignored. Today, however, the 1,730-acre impoundment teems with bass, walleye, perch and other popular game fish.

Formed in 1926 by construction of the Cheat Lake Dam near Morgantown, the lake had water problems from the very beginning. Pollution from tanneries located along the Cheat River caused major fish kills in both the river and the lake. Coal mining contributed to the problem.

“Six to eight of the lake’s major tributaries had serious acid mine drainage problems,” said Dave Wellman, district fisheries biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources. “The acid-rain problems of the 1960s and 1970s made things even worse.”

The lake was never considered dead, but it wasn’t far from it.

“Frank Jernejcic, who was the district biologist in the 1980s, didn’t deem it worthy to do fish surveys on the lake,” Wellman said. “Most of the fish that existed then were bullheads and white suckers, both of which are very acid-tolerant species. A couple of embayments fed by unpolluted tributaries held a few largemouth bass and a couple of other game fish species, but that was about it.”

Dustin Smith, Wellman’s assistant, could be considered an authority on the lake’s fish species; he recently completed a doctoral dissertation on the subject.

“In the worst years, there were only 15 species of fish in the lake,” Smith said. “Ninety percent of those fish were bullheads and white suckers. Most of the rest were minnows of one kind or another.”

The turnabout began in the early 1970s. Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972, both of which forced polluting industries to clean up their act. Unfortunately for the Cheat River system, much of the acid draining into the river and its tributaries came from mines long ago abandoned. Finding a solution for such “legacy issues” took years.

The river’s water quality began to improve in the early 1990s, partly because the DNR began dumping limestone sand into some of the Cheat’s acidic headwater tributaries. The limestone buffered the acid and added much-needed fertility to the river’s waters.

At about the same time, the state Department of Environmental Protection placed a limestone treatment facility on Beaver Creek, one of the watershed’s “hottest” mine-drainage tributaries. Other treatment projects followed.

“In 1994, there was a major acid mine drainage blowout on the main Cheat,” Wellman said. “After that, there was an emphasis on getting more treatment facilities. A group called ‘River of Promise’ was formed in 1995. It got private industry, watershed associations and conservation groups involved. Its objective was to treat acid mine drainage and acid precipitation throughout the watershed.”

Partners signed on — Friends of the Cheat, the DEP, the DNR and West Virginia University, among others.

“Millions of dollars have gone into mine-drainage abatement since then,” Wellman said. “It has made a remarkable difference.”

Pollution control isn’t a one-time thing for Cheat Lake and the Cheat River system. Without ongoing treatment, the lake and the river would revert to the sad condition they were in during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Without continued funding for these treatment sites, Cheat Lake would be right back to where it was before 1990 — a lake full of bullheads and suckers,” Smith said.

Today’s anglers enjoy a lake that is considerably richer and more diverse. Smith said the number of fish species present in the lake has almost tripled, and some of those species are doing remarkably well.

“We’ve documented 44 species,” he said. “There are no dominant species anymore. Things are pretty well distributed. We have several species of interest to anglers — smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, yellow perch, channel catfish and several kinds of sunfish.”

The lake, once ignored by anglers, now hosts 20 to 30 bass tournaments a year.

“Smallmouth bass numbers, in particular, have shot through the roof,” Wellman said. “Cheat Lake now has one of the state’s highest catch rates for bass.”

Smith said the comeback of the lake’s smallmouth is particularly encouraging because the species won’t tolerate acidic water.

“We capture 13 times more smallmouth in surveys today than when we started surveying,” he added. “It’s a great sign, because smallmouth were among the first to go when the lake became polluted.”

Walleye, once eliminated from the lake altogether, have also made a comeback. In 1999, the DNR began stocking walleye fry and fingerlings. The lake now sports a thriving walleye population and the fastest walleye growth rate of any Mountain State impoundment.

“Females stocked as fingerlings get to 27 inches in as little as six years,” Smith said. “Several walleyes in the 34-inch range have been caught in recent years. That’s close to state-record size.”

Yellow perch, channel catfish and pumpkinseed sunfish are thriving as well. Smith said Cheat Lake has become one of the best places in West Virginia to catch those species.

“There aren’t many lakes that have lots of good-sized yellow perch, but Cheat Lake is one of them,” he said. “We have an absolutely excellent channel cat fishery; lots of fish in the 3- to 4-pound range. And we have lots of really nice pumpkinseeds, close to what I would consider a trophy fishery.”

The future for Cheat Lake, Wellman said, will continue to be bright as long as the pollution can be held at bay.

“Since 2004, we’ve only had two episodes in which the lake’s pH dropped below 6,” he said. “As long as we can keep that up, everything will be fine.”

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231 or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.