The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 13, 2011

Summersville Lake drawn down

Water level dropped 132 feet for maintenance work on dam

— Motorists traveling across Hughes Bridge over Summersville Lake are being treated to a dramatic view this fall, as the lake is drained far below its typical winter level for inspection and maintenance work on the Summersville Dam.

Every 10 years, the lake is drawn down an extra 55 feet so that the dam’s intake structure can be accessed, considerably shrinking the 2,800-acre lake to a mere 400 acres. The lake is currently at 1,520 feet above sea level, which is 132 feet below its summer level.

Nine out of 10 gallons contained in the lake are released during the drawdown, according to the dam’s manager, C.J. Hamilton, who says the inspection is going “very well.”

“We’re a little ahead of schedule,” he said. “Today, we did some testing of some of the equipment, and we also have some divers diving both inside and outside the intake structure.

“This is a routine, scheduled inspection. We want to make sure all the components are operating as they were originally designed and intended.”

Inspectors check the structure’s various components, like the rails that the dam’s gates slide on, or the racks along the outside that keep debris out of the gates. So far, all the maintenance work has been minor in nature.

“If all goes well, we’ll be finished with the inspections by the end of the weekend and reinstall the gates next week,” said Hamilton.

At that point, it will be up to Mother Nature to provide the rain necessary to refill the lake. Hamilton explained the drawdown process in this way:

“Picture the lake as a wide spot in a river. If you want to consistently maintain a certain water level, you have to let as much water out as there is coming in. That’s what we’re doing right now. We are at this ideal inspection level, constantly trying to see how much is coming in and letting that much out,” he said.

“Once we’re done, we’ll be in a mode of filling back up, so you’ll have to have less going out than there is coming in. We’ll go to a minimum flow of 200 cubic feet per second. Then the lake will fill up as quickly as it can, based on the amount of rain water. We don’t yet have a projection for how long that will take.”

The extra releases of water were responsible for higher-than-normal flows during Gauley season this year, to the delight of rafters and kayakers. 

The logic behind the 10-year maintenance schedule has to do mainly with how the yearly drawdown affects the lake’s fish, said Tim Curran, chief of water management at the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the dam.

Years ago, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources made an assessment of the fish lost through the dam and requested that the winter level be raised by 55 feet in order to provide more habitat for the fish and ensure that they wouldn’t be accidentally drawn through the dam and killed.

As a result, the typical winter level is set at 1,575, rather than the 1,520 feet that the dam was originally designed for.

Because of that increase in water level, the intake structure that requires maintenance is actually under water during the winter. That means every 10 years it’s necessary to release extra water and expose the tunnel intake for inspection.

Maintenance on dams averages every five years, but because of the risk of impacting the lake’s fishery, the inspections on Summersville Dam are performed every 10 years.

Curran said area anglers take advantage of the lower levels as well, since the fish are densely packed into the lake.

“There isn’t as much water, but there’s the same number of fish,” he said. “That’s good, if you want to catch fish.”

This year, however, the Corps is reporting that the winter boat ramps at the lake will be temporarily closed because of the drawdown. No boat launching will be available until the inspection work is complete and the lake is back up to its normal winter level. Shoreline fishing is still available, they say, but most areas are inaccessible due to muddy conditions.

“It’s not impossible to get down there, but it would be difficult,” said Chuck Minsker, spokes- man for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We apologize for the inconvenience, and we’re hopeful that within about a month, we’ll be back to normal winter pool,” he said.

—E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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