By C.V. Moore
As a federal agency continues its evaluation for the relicensing of the Hawks Nest Hydro project in Fayette County, several groups have gone on record to request more in-depth studies than those already proposed by the operating utility.
At issue is the potential impact of releasing more water from the Hawks Nest Dam, whether it be on recreation, fish, vegetation, or the economy. Currently, most of the New River’s water is diverted through a tunnel to a hydroelectric facility that feeds electricity to Globe Metallurgical’s smelting plant in Alloy, creating a 5-mile stretch known as “The Dries.”
One stakeholder says 65 percent of paddling opportunities on The Dries are lost due to the diversion of water, and wants to help conduct a study of the optimum flows for whitewater recreation.
In preliminary filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Brookfield Renewable Energy proposed several studies be undertaken, including some related to water quality, aquatic habitat, and recreational use.
Now on the table from the Department of Natural Resources is an instream flow study, which would assess how much aquatic habitat is lost because of the diverted water, and how much habitat could be gained by increasing the flow.
Currently, the dam is licensed to release a minimum of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) at all times. That’s compared to a “natural” flow level upstream at Thurmond that exceeds 1,800 cfs about 90 percent of the time.
A letter from The National Park Service (NPS) to FERC stops short of requesting specific studies, but it does make several requests of the agency.
First, NPS — which manages the New River Gorge National River, around and adjacent to the dam — asks for an evaluation of the potential for improved recreational opportunities and increased public access in The Dries, specifically related to their plans to develop new hiking and biking trails in the area.
One of the goals in the park’s management plan is to create new long-distance trails on both sides of the river that connect at Hawks Nest Dam or Cotton Hill Bridge. NPS is requesting that the management plan in general be part of FERC’s evaluation.
The park says that its resources and visitors could be impacted by changes in flow, or by a change in the level of Hawks Nest Lake, and simply asks that FERC take this into account as part of its evaluation, in order to “maximize resource protection and economic development for all of Fayette County.”
An extensive filing by the American Whitewater Association (AWA), which advocates for the preservation and protection of America’s whitewater rivers, raises five key issues and requests three additional studies be undertaken.
According to a data analysis by the organization, 65 percent of paddling opportunities on The Dries are lost due to the diversion of water by the Hawks Nest Hydro project. When those opportunities do exist, usually in cold months, the river is “high, flashy (and) unpredictable.”
“The result is that highly skilled freestyle paddlers that are either local or lucky know the river at high flows fairly well, while intermediate paddlers, commercial paddlers, and general river-runners know relatively little about the river at low and moderate flows,” they say.
“There are significant opportunities to restore world class and regionally significant recreation opportunities to the New River Dries through reducing the amount of water diverted by the Hawks Nest Project during certain times of high recreational demand and specific inflows,” states the organization.
They also say that more information is needed with regards to the financial and energy relationship between Brookfield and Globe Metallurgical, and point out that relicensing pertains only to the hydro project as independent of the smelter.
At a recent public meeting on the relicensing, representatives from West Virginia Alloys told FERC officials that losing any power from the hydro plant could have a “severe impact” on their operations.
Other issues raised by AWA in their filing include the effects of flow on aquatic life, river access, economic factors, and energy-consumer relationships.
Whether or not minimum flows change, the organization says there is demand for river accesses below the dam and at Gauley Bridge.
AWA wants a whitewater flow study, a hydrologic study to assess the ecological value of increased flows, and an economic impact study.
All study requests are due on Wednesday. The next step in the relicensing process is for FERC to release a revised scoping document and for Brookfield to file a proposed study plan. Both will happen by Jan. 5.
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