With Some Mussel, We Move Dams.

A stretch below Highland dam that is a good representation of what the stream will look like once dams are removed. Credit: Nick Millett/USFWS

I ended my first week with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service waist deep in the West Fork River cleaning up the decades of trash recently exposed due to 2 of 3 successful obsolete dam removals. Now finally, the third and final dam has been dismantled.

This day has long been awaited; 9 years in the making. It took years of planning, grant-writing, regulation checking, and public hearings to embark on West Virginia’s very first stream enhancement dam removal project.

The project targeted 3 obsolete low-head dams: West Milford Dam – 94 years old, Two Lick Dam – 105 years old, and Highland Dam – 85 years old. The dams were established for drinking water and irrigation purposes, but construction of the Stonewall Jackson Dam in 1990 rendered these 3 dams obsolete. With the deconstruction of these century old dams, fish are now free to migrate through 491 miles of streams and tributaries upstream of the Hartland Dam. The West Fork River reconnection is the state’s most significant river restoration effort.

The dam removals will eliminate the safety hazards low-head dams create, while improving water quality, river habitat, and opportunities to fish and paddle on the river.  Restoration on the river will increase safety, cleanliness, and the natural beauty of the West Fork River within Harrison County. There is a national effort to remove these obsolete dams and restore rivers. Since the movement push over the past two decades, the Service, along with partners, has removed more than 1,600 barriers to fish passage.

 

After the dams were removed the water level dropped, more than ten feet in some parts of the river. The extreme weight of these saturated streambanks led to bank sloughing and roadway collapse in vulnerable areas.  The Service worked with the West Virginia Division of Highways to address areas of concern and reinforce potential bank failures. Another task was the relocation of freshwater mussels stranded by the receding waters. Crews from AllStar Ecology LLC, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Davis and Elkins College, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan program, joined our office to gather and relocate 1,430 stranded native mussels representing 9 species from the exposed river banks. The mussels were recorded for species data and transferred to newly established riffle/run habitat along the West Fork River.

 

In order to beautify the banks along the West Fork River, crews of volunteers set out over many weekends to help remove trash and large debris. Some items removed from the river included a whole car, a car frame, washing machines, furniture, televisions, and even a wooden slot machine! In 8 volunteer crew clean-ups, over 54,000 pounds of trash and 818 tires were pulled from the river. West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection REAP has worked with the Service to properly dispose of the removed debris. Trash removal efforts will continue in the spring in cooperation with Fishing Report WV, a Facebook group comprised of local fisherman dedicated to cleaning up rivers throughout the state.

In the coming year, plans have been set forth to install a structure at the Hartland Dam to provide passage to fish and non-motorized boaters. This will increase the newly reconnected river and stream another 32 miles, from a total of 491 to 523 contiguous miles returning free-flowing conditions not seen in a century. Free-flowing water encourages diversity and resilient river ecosystems that flush nutrient, pollution, and sediment. By doing so, the river supports freshwater mussels and fish populations and enhances fishing for sport species.

Nearly a century of obstruction, 9 years of coordination, and 9 months of deconstruction;  finally, the fish are able to swim freely once again on the West Fork River.

Project partners include the Clarksburg Water Board, Canaan Valley Institute, Southwestern Energy, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, American Rivers, AllStar Ecology, LLC., West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Fishing Report WV, Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, National Fish Passage Program, and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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