The Hawks Nest Dam holds back the water of the New River and diverts as much as 10,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) through a tunnel to a powerhouse with four turbine-generator units that provide electricity to a smelting plant that produces silicon metal more than five miles away at Alloy. That leaves a 5.5-mile section of the river with very little water flow for much of the year. Consequently, that section, which is formally called the Hawks Nest bypass reach, has become known informally as the “Dries.” Only when flows on the New River exceed 10,000 CFS and water spills over the dam does the bypass reach receive more than the 100 CFS minimum flow the dam is required to release. The Dries is one of the longest reaches of dewatered rivers in the United States.
If a small portion of the water used to generate electricity at the hydro plant were allowed to flow through the natural course of the river during summer months, the section known as the Dries could be used for whitewater rafting and other recreational activities. Thus, this effort is called “Wet the Dries.” Having such recreational activities would create jobs and other economic benefits for the area without jeopardizing any jobs at the smelting plant. What is needed is a Level 3 study, which would include controlled releases of water over the dam through the natural course of the river to determine how it would affect both recreational uses of the New River and operations of the Hawks News Hydro plant. Until a Level 3 study is conducted, it is impossible to determine exactly what the effects releasing more water over the dam would have on the power plant or on river recreation.
New Information Sought by WVPRO
The whitewater rafting industry, acting through its trade association, West Virginia Professional River Outfitters (WVPRO), and its counsel, Larry W. George, is seeking additional information to assure a fair and fully informed relicensing process before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Specifically, to determine the appropriate flows in the Dries, WVPRO requests: (1) a Level 3 Multiple Flow Reconnaissance Assessment and a Controlled Flow Study, and (2) the installation of a new river flow gauge in the vicinity of the Cotton Hill Bridge.
In the 1920s, Union Carbide wanted to divert the New River for a hydroelectric project to provide electricity for its Electro-Metallurgical Co. smelting plant at Alloy. Union Carbide contracted with Rinehart & Dennis of Charlottesville, Virginia, to build a 948-foot-long concrete-gravity dam with a structural height of about 65 feet at Hawks Nest and a three-mile tunnel to carry the river under Gauley Mountain with a 167-foot drop. Groundbreaking occurred on March 30, 1930. Most of the construction on the tunnel was finished in 1932. The project employed almost 5,000 workers, including some local men but mostly migrant workers, a majority of whom were blacks from the South. Almost 3,000 men worked drilling and blasting underground. The project has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the United States, because it had to drill through high-grade silica-bearing sandstone and many men died from acute silicosis. Estimates of the number of deaths ranged from 476 to 764 and higher.
Despite the unfortunate nature of the tunnel’s construction, it served its purpose of providing water to generate power for New-Kanawha Power Company, a corporate entity established by Union Carbide to provide electricity to the Alloy plant. Water from the New River began being diverted through the tunnel in July 1936.Since then, that tunnel has diverted the water of the New River to the power plant that provides electricity to the smelting plant. That diversion of water has left a 5.5-mile section of the New River below the dam with a very low level of water for much of the year.
When the hydroelectric plant last was relicensed in 1987, the minimum flow of water through the natural course of the river below the dam was set at 100 CFS. That minimum flow is released through what is known as the “trash gate,” which is 10 feet wide on the north end of the spillway. That level of 100 CFS was established without much study of what would best serve the aesthetics, ecology and recreational uses of that section of the river.
The hydro plant has a maximum capacity of 102 megawatts from four turbine-generators units, but the FERC lists its dependable capacity at 16.4 megawatts. Its average annual generation is 541,845 megawatt-hours. Two parallel 69-kilovolt transmission lines deliver the plant’s power to the smelting plant about 5.5 miles away. At times when power generation has not been sufficient from the Hawks Nest hydro plant, the smelting plant has been able to buy the additional power it needs from American Electric Power.
The smelting plant at Alloy now is owned by West Virginia Alloys, Inc., a division of Globe Metallurgical. The dam and hydroelectric plant are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to Hawks Nest Hydro, LLC, a subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable Energy. FERC issued the current operating license on December 11, 1987. That 30-year license is scheduled to expire on December 31, 2017. The company is expected to file an application for license renewal in 2013.
Meanwhile, another hydroelectric plant at Glen Ferris along the Kanawha River had been out of service since 2004, but Brookfield bought the plant in 2006 and gave it a $25 million renovation, increasing its total generation capacity from 5.45 megawatts to 6.12 megawatts. When its capacity was 5.45 megawatts, the Glen Ferris plant had average annual generation of 34,400 megawatt-hours. Two turbine-generator units in the east powerhouse, generating 3.874 megawatts of power, went back into service on December 20, 2011. Six other turbine-generator units in the west powerhouse were scheduled to go back into operation by October 30, 2012, and generate 2.25 megawatts. That power could offset any minor reduction in power at the Hawks Nest plant resulting from a slightly reduced flow of water through the tunnel because of its diversion to the river.
FERC is considering the relicensing of both the Hawks Nest and Glen Ferris projects together.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: FERC is an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas, oil and electricity, as well as natural gas and hydropower projects. Specifically, in regard to hydropower, the commission licenses and inspects private, municipal and state hydroelectric projects. FERC has up to five commissioners who are appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Commissioners serve five-year terms. The current commissioners are Jon Wellinghoff (nominated to commission by George W. Bush in 2006; appointed chairman by Barack Obama on March 19, 2009), Philip D. Moeller (nominated by Bush in 2006; nominated in 2010 by Obama for a second term ending in 2015), John R. Norris (nominated by Obama in 2010 for partial term and reconfirmed in 2012 for tern ending in 2017), Cheryl A. LaFleur (nominated by Obama for term that ends in 2014) and Tony Clark (nominated by Obama in 2012 for term ending in 2016). FERC’s headquarters are at 888 First Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20426. More information about FERC is available at: http://www.ferc.gov/.
Hawks Nest Hydro, LLC: This company operates the Hawks Nest and Glen Ferris power plants. It is a subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, which owns primarily hydroelectric power facilities along 68 river systems in the United States, Canada and Brazil with about 5,000 megawatts of installed capacity. Brookfield is based in Gatineau, Quebec. More information about Brookfield is available at: http://brookfieldrenewable.com.
West Virginia Alloys, Inc.: This company owns and operates the smelting plant at Alloy. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Globe Metallurgical, Inc., which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Globe Specialty Metals, Inc. Globe Metallurgical is based in Beverly, Ohio. Globe Specialty Metals is based in New York, New York. More information about Globe is available at: http://www.glbsm.com/globemetallurgical/.
West Virginia Professional River Outfitters: WVPRO represents 12 organizations with interests in the recreational uses of the New River. They include: Wildwater Expeditions, West Virginia Adventures, The Rivermen, Songer Whitewater, River Expeditions, New & Gauley River Adventures, Extreme Expeditions, Class VI River Runners, Adventures on the Gorge, Mountain State Anglers, Alpine Ministries and Ace Adventure Center. More information about WVPRO is available at: http://www.americasbestwhitewater.com/.
Hawks Nest Hydro is expected to file an application for a license renewal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2013. Unlike a driver’s license renewal, this renewal process starts from zero. The applicant must establish fully why getting a new license that could last for decades is in the best interests of the public.
The formal start of the relicensing process was the filing of the Pre-application Document, which includes much existing information available about the operation, on July 24, 2012. As part of that process, a questionnaire was sent to about 100 parties seeking their views on the relicensing.
Among the entities that responded to the survey was West Virginia Professional River Outfitters (WVPRO), which represents 12 other groups that received the letter. Those other groups include: Wildwater Expeditions, West Virginia Adventures, The Rivermen, Songer Whitewater, River Expeditions, New & Gauley River Adventures, Extreme Expeditions, Class VI River Runners, Adventures on the Gorge, Mountain State Anglers, Alpine Ministries and Ace Adventure Center. WVPRO intends to work closely with: the West Virginia River Coalition, Plateau Action Network, New River Clean Water Alliance, Hydropower Reform Coalition, West Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association, National Committee for the New River, West Virginia Wildwater Association and America Outdoors.
WVPRO and others want Hawks Nest Hydro, in coordination with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and FERC, to conduct a Level 3 Multiple Flow Reconnaissance Assessment and a Controlled Flow Study and install a new river flow gauge in the vicinity of the Cotton Hill Bridge. The purposes of the studies and the new gauge would be to evaluate enhancing the water flow through the 5.5 miles of the New River below the Hawks Nest Dam to permit commercial rafting, fishing and other recreation activities.
The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will prepare an environmental assessment for the commission to use to determine whether, and under what conditions, to issue new licenses for the Hawks Nest and Glen Ferris projects. FERC has scheduled two scoping meetings to receive input on the scope of the environmental assessment on October 17 at 7:00 p.m. and October 18 at 10:00 a.m. at Hawks Nest State Park Lodge. Commission staff, Brookfield representatives and other interested parties also will conduct a site visit on October 17 beginning at 9:00 a.m. beginning at Hawks Nest State Park Lodge. Written comments on the pre-application document also can be filed with FERC by November 21, 2012.
According to the National Park Service, when rivers have extensive recreation use that is clearly dependent on the flow of the river that is affected by a project such as a hydroelectric plant, “more intensive and detailed efforts are necessary” in studies of those projects. Because of the diversity of situations, the federal government has established three levels of studies:
- Level 1 – “Desktop” options: This is the initial information collection and integration phase. It usually focuses on desktop methods using existing information or limited interviews with people familiar with flows and recreation on a bypass reach.
- Level 2 – Limited reconnaissance options: This increases the degree of resolution through limited reconnaissance-based studies, more intensive analysis of existing information or more extensive interviews.
- Level 3 – Intensive studies: This substantially increases the degree of resolution through more intensive studies, which may include multiple flow reconnaissance, flow comparison surveys or controlled flow studies.
The National Park Service says, “This framework has been applied successfully in FERC relicensing proceedings, and it has the potential to improve studies or applications in several ways.” Advantages to this approach are that it:
- Streamlines costs by prioritizing bypass reaches more deserving of additional study;
- Provides a transparent and defensible record for all entities;
- Helps standardize methodologies and improves comparability across situations,
- Allows information to be shared earlier in the process, particularly across resources; and
- Creates efficiencies in conducting coordinated studies, particularly if controlled flow releases are part of the study design.
Brookfield has proposed doing just a Level 1 study, but a Level 3 study is clearly needed in the relicensing process for the Hawks Nest Hydro plant, because only controlled flow studies could establish the amount of water needed for recreational uses on the Dries and what effects such water diversion would have on the power plant.
Also, it should be noted that the licensing of the Hawks Nest hydroelectric project in the 1980s and before did not involve any significant environmental review. Since the dam was last licensed in 1987, the law has changed and more environmental review is required.
Essential Elements of a Study
Opportunities to paddle the Dries depend on weather, so they have been sporadic, and accurate flow readings have been unavailable. Thus, test releases with volume measurements are needed to determine how to maximize opportunities for recreational use while minimizing effects on power generation. A Level 1, or desktop, study would not be sufficient; a Level 3 study is necessary.
Hawks Nest Hydro should stage controlled releases of water through the bypass reach, the Dries, during the summer of 2013. Two weekends per month would be enough to allow paddling groups, outfitters and water quality groups to gather data on the best level of flow, length of release and oxygen content in the bypass reach. The scheduling of the releases could by having outfitters, private boaters and fishermen work with the utility to determine the best off-peak power times.
Following the completion of the scheduled releases, an advisory panel composed of representatives of the interested parties should be formed to establish an appropriate CFS release level for continued regular releases over three years to determine the environmental effects and commercial feasibility of an ongoing, long-term schedule of releases.
A new gauge with satellite telemeter should be installed near the Cotton Hill Bridge with the ability to measure both water stage and volume. The existing gauge measures only the stage. Recording volume in cubic feet per second is essential for tracking releases and monitoring minimum flows during the study period. The new gauge should be maintained by Hawks Nest Power and monitored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
For recreational use, the degree of difficulty in any whitewater section can vary dramatically at different water levels. Even at the same level, no two whitewater trips are the same. This is especially true in the bypass reach where constriction and obstructions are the major whitewater influences, and their effects can change significantly at different flow volumes. Thus, several opportunities are needed to assess each flow level, as well as the timing and duration of usable flow from scheduled releases. Experience from other dam-controlled rivers shows that a release of six hours does not result in six hours of usable whitewater, because it takes a while to fill pools downstream.
Interested parties should hold regular meetings to evaluate the result of the test releases and work collaboratively to develop plans that meet multiple needs of those using the river for power and recreation, as well as local communities, businesses and other interest groups. Even if a release plan becomes part of conditions for the license, opportunities must be provided to adjust that plan. Adjustments might be needed to incorporate unanticipated factors. Or there might be interest in scheduling additional releases for special events or to schedule different volumes on different days to allow for more diversity for different user groups to enjoy the resource.
If enough of a flow is restored to the 5.5 miles of the New River below the Hawks Nest Dam from Memorial Day through Labor Day, it is projected that it would attract more than 150,000 whitewater enthusiasts, climbers, hikers, anglers and bikers to the New River Gorge each year. That would create jobs and economic development in southern West Virginia without jeopardizing any jobs at the smelting plant.
Although a variety of whitewater rafting trips are available on the New and Gauley rivers, there is a need for signature short trips in the area. The Dries, if it had sufficient water flow, has the optimum distance for such short trips. The pre-application document notes that there are “several stretches of the river offering a variety of runs located within 10 minutes” of Hawks Nest State Park. However, of the 14 sections of whitewater listed in the tables (5.9-1 and 5.9-2) in the document, 11 are creeks that are attempted only by expert kayakers during heavy rains. The proposed Level 3 study could reveal a controlled release level that would provide Class III (intermediate) or higher whitewater for trips that could be paddled in less than four hours. That would provide more variety to the whitewater opportunities in southern West Virginia.
Increased flow would put more oxygen in the water of the river and reduce algae, which would be good for fish, and increase pooling, which would improve fishing conditions.It also would increase access for private and commercial float fishing.
Diversion of a relatively small amount of water over the dam instead of through the tunnel should not affect the level of Hawks Nest Lake.
Although there might be some trade off in benefits between power generation and recreation, the benefits to recreation would be so great and the effects on power generation would be so small that the balance would be overwhelmingly in favor of recreation. By no means should recreational use of the Dries jeopardize a single job at the smelting plant. For decades, the hydro plant and smelting plant have been the sole beneficiaries of the Hawks Nest Dam and its effects on the New River. It is time for more people to benefit from the river.