By C.V. Moore
HAWKS NEST —
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission won’t publish its official study plan determination until next June, but a recent filing shows that the agency agrees with whitewater and environmental advocacy groups that more robust studies are needed of instream and recreational flows in The Dries of the New River.
FERC has requested that several additional studies be done as part of the relicensing process for the Hawks Nest Hydro project, which diverts 10,000 cubic feet per second of water from a five-mile stretch of river in order to generate 25-cycle power for a local smelting plant.
A Nov. 20 filing by the agency asks the hydro project’s operator, Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, to address in its proposed study plan the need for studies of flow, fisheries, threatened and endangered species, and recreation. The estimated cost of the studies, according to FERC, will be between $165,000 and $245,000, depending on the extent of the analyses.
The agency says that because tourism is one of Fayette County’s top industries and pumps millions into the economy, a controlled flow whitewater boating study is necessary “to fully evaluate the project’s effect on whitewater recreation opportunities and to balance potential enhancement opportunities with their costs.”
In making its decisions, FERC is charged with giving “equal consideration to all uses of the waterway on which a project is located,” including environmental, recreational, fish and wildlife, and power and developmental uses.
Globe Specialty Metals manufactures silicon metal at its plant in Alloy using 25-cycle power generated by the hydro project. At recent public meetings with FERC, representatives from the company warned that increasing flows through the dam would cut down on the amount of power running to their plant, and thus impact their bottom line.
Whitewater interests, which stand to gain from controlled releases from the dam for recreational boating, say they want to see a balance of recreational, ecological, and industrial benefits from whatever minimum flow is eventually determined.
“We want to work with everybody and not take anything away from the people at Alloy and just try to get some facts and see if it’s feasible (to release more water into The Dries). That’s all we want,” says Bobby Bower of West Virginia Professional River Outfitters.
Dave Barnhart, director of Mid-Atlantic operations for Brookfield and director of operations at Hawks Nest Hydro, says he and his colleagues haven’t had an opportunity to look at the Nov. 20 filing and therefore do not have any comment at this time.
Although FERC will determine later which studies are ultimately undertaken by the company, it also file study requests just like other stakeholders during the scoping process.
Monir Chowdhury, who is overseeing the Hawks Nest Hydro relicensing for FERC, says the agency acts like a stakeholder in this way to make sure that the scope and content of studies is adequate early on in the reclicensing process.
“It’s possible that the stakeholders are not aware of what we are aware of, or what we are wanting to look at. ... In this case, a lot of the stakeholders submitted the same studies, but there are a lot of other projects where FERC would request studies that others had not provided,” he says.
Brookfield initially proposed 10 studies for the relicensing process, but two in particular did not go as far as some felt was necessary in order to get a clear picture of how low water levels in The Dries affect aquatic habitat.
Their proposal would have collected information about habitat under the current minimum flow of 100 cfs, but wouldn’t have considered whether additional flows are needed for a healthy ecosystem.
“In short ... the proposed studies are only for the current business-as-usual scenario of a minimum flow of 100 cfs,” writes Heather Lukacs of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Sixteen miles upriver in Thurmond, the driest month of the year, September, averages a flow of 3,600 cfs.
During the last relicensing process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recommended maintaining flows between 2,300 and 4,280 cfs below the dam. Back then, FERC recommended between 800 and 2,000 cfs.
The National Committee for the New River and others call the eventual 100 cfs minimum flow requirements “surprising,” given these recommendations.
When asked at a public meeting where the 100 cfs figure came from, Chowdhury said simply that it was “part of the relicensing process.”
But FERC now says that a study of instream flow should be undertaken by Brookfield in coordination with the FWS and West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR).
The other study enhancement FERC is proposing is a more robust look at recreational flows and access, with the goal of evaluating “the effects of a range of bypassed reach flows on whitewater recreational opportunities.”
Originally, the company proposed a “Level 1 Desktop Analysis” based on available literature, hydrology, and interviews. But this study would go further.
The agency asks Brookfield to determine the acceptable minimum and optimal flows needed for whitewater boating between the dam and the powerhouse at Glen Ferris, as well as look at access concerns that might affect recreational experiences. They ask that it be prepared in consultation with boaters, land and resource managers, guides, and other users.
“We’re very willing to work with the utility to help with the study and with the consultants to keep the cost down,” says Bower. “We have the resources — boats, trucks, drivers, and people who could help with the recreational flow study.”
He says that the recreational flow study could mesh with the instream flow study and use the same scheduled releases for data collection.
The other two studies proposed by FERC address the unintentional loss of fish due to the hydro project and explore in more detail the impacts of the project on threatened, endangered, and special status species.
Some endangered species in the area include the bald eagle, Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat, buffalo clover, and Virginia spirea.
Chowdhury says there will still be many opportunities to discuss the studies. Brookfield will file its proposed study plan by Jan. 5.
Stakeholders will meet to discuss it in early February and submit their comments into early April. The company will then submit a revised study plan, with another comment period, before FERC hands down its decision on the required studies June 4.
The studies suggested by FERC this month are in line with those requested by a number of groups that filed comments and spoke at public meetings on the issue earlier this fall. These include American Whitewater, The Nature Conservancy, National Committee for the New River, National Parks Conservation Association, National Park Service, West Virginia Professional River Outfitters, and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.