Appearance. Odor. Flavor. Mouth feel. No, we’re not talking about wine – this is water.
Award-winning water, to be precise; these are just a few of the criteria used to name Clarksburg, West Virginia’s tap water as the best in the state. It’s the first time Clarksburg has won the Rural Water Association Taste Test Competition, and the victory comes just a year after the Service and partners completed a major dam removal and river cleanup project on Clarksburg’s water supply, the West Fork River.
“We’re proud of it. You really have to attribute it to the cleanup of the river,” said Dick Welch, general manager of the Clarksburg Water Board.
The Service removed three dams from the West Fork in 2016: the Two Lick, the Highland, and the West Milford Dams- each of which had been cited for safety concerns and were considered barriers to wildlife – were all taken out, restoring a natural flow to 491 miles of river. In addition, local agencies and volunteer groups led a cleanup effort that removed more than 61,000 pounds of trash – including 1,212 tires, several televisions, and even a car – from the river.
“I have people coming up all the time saying, ‘Hey, I’m really coming around on this, the river’s beautiful, the water is clear,’” said Service biologist Nick Millett. “The clarity of the water has certainly improved.”
The project was a crossroads of many interests, from restoring habitat for mussel populations like the endangered clubshell mussel, to preventing flood risk to nearby communities, to improving fishing and other recreation on the river. The dams had also been responsible for several drownings over the years, which had prompted serious safety concerns.
Yet getting the removals approved was no easy task – many residents nearby feared that the project could hurt fishing in the area, or could even increase flooding during storm events. It took several years of negotiations and trust building to get the support of the community.
“A lot of people in the community were really skeptical, you know, they thought, ‘Big bad government’s coming in, telling us how to live our lives and taking our river away,’” said Millett.
Since the project’s completion, however, this section of the West Fork has been transformed. Early reports suggest that fishing has improved, with fewer barriers to fish migration easing their passage and increasing fish counts. Communities have also seen a demonstrably reduced flood risk: a high water event in summer of 2017 did not spill over the river’s banks, even in areas that had previously been prone to flooding. And with no obstructions in their way, kayakers and canoeists have enjoyed the free flow of the river, no longer forced to portage around the crumbling dams.
Highland Dam site, post-removal (Credit: Nick Millett)
“I think the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done an excellent job gaining the trust of the community and responding to complaints quickly,” said Welch. “People see that the project has been worthwhile.”
Not only has the water looked visually clearer than before, but the Clarksburg water board also saw a savings of more than $45,000 in water treatment costs this year.
“We noticed we were using fewer chemicals,” said Welch. “That tells you that the river is cleaner.”
Time will tell when the mussel populations will show the benefits of the project. Reclusive creatures with long life cycles, the mussels need what’s called riffle pool habitat to survive, and require the hospitality of fish in the river, who become hosts to mussel larvae until they mature enough to grow a shell. It may take years to see the benefits of the dam removals, but with more fish to act as hosts and more riffle pool opened up by reduced dam impoundments, the stage is set for the little molluscs to return to the river.
In the meantime, residents of Clarksburg can bask in the glow of their water competition win, and root for their favorite beverage as it goes on to the national tap water competition in 2018.
Victory has never tasted so good.
Partners on the West Fork River 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.
Since 2009, the Service and partners have removed or replaced more than 507 barriers to fish passage from Maine to West Virginia, reconnecting more than 4,020 miles of rivers and streams and 19,300 acres of wetlands. Partners across the Northeast have matched the Service’s funding contribution nearly 5 to 1, contributing $56.1 million to the Service’s $12.5 million to restore aquatic connectivity for wildlife and protect communities.