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Friends of the Cheat gives tour, deems river the ‘healthiest it’s been in 50 years’

By CONOR GRIFFITH

The State Journal

CHEAT LAKE, W.Va.  —The nonprofit organization Friends of the Cheat concluded a tour throughout Monongalia and Preston counties Tuesday evening, during which time the group delivered a report on the state of the Cheat River watershed.

Since 1994, FOC has partnered with private landowners, government organizations and companies to address the threat to watershed posed by acid mine drainage, which lowers the watershed’s pH levels to the point where little plant or animal life can survive in it.

“The Cheat River is the healthiest it’s been in 50 years,” FOC Executive Director Amanda Pitzer said, adding that one issue the organization is now facing is changing the perception of the river and lake, especially among older generations. “They remember when there were no fish in the lake and it looked like a drainage ditch. We’re really trying to keep education and outreach ramped up.”

These efforts were accomplished through the construction of water treatment sites throughout the region. Other installations add lime or sodium hydroxide to purify the water. Pitzer said the organization is now moving on to purifying the myriad of streams and creeks that feed into the Cheat River.

Dustin Smith, of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the proof in Cheat Lake’s rebound lies in its current fish stocks. In the 1970s, he said only 15 species were observed in the lake and more than 80 percent of these were bullhead and white sucker catfish, which are highly tolerant of acidic waters. By 2015, 44 fish species were observed, including large salamanders and walleye, a popular, but sensitive game fish. Not only that, Smith said the rate of fish caught jumped from 160 fish caught per hour in 1990 to 540 in 2005. This was made possible by reduced acidity in the lake, something Smith said can only remain as long as treatment of the water continues.

“The main lake was basically an aquatic desert,” Smith said. “It’s such a success story when looking at where it is now versus where it was.”

Randy Huffman, former state Division of Environmental Protection Cabinet Secretary and competitive bass fisherman, said there are economic impacts of cleaning up the watershed, adding that when FOC started, the most immediate concern regarding the pollution was the decline in whitewater rafting. He said small communities near abundant clean water burst with economic activity as a result of fishing tournaments, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars to participate in when factoring in restaurants, equipment, hotels, tackle shops and fuel. An example of this, he said, is Dandridge, Tennessee.

“If you’ve ever been there, it’s not much, but, when you get a 200-boat bass tournament, its economy booms,” he said. “Go to any bass tournament and you’ll understand the economics and the importance it plays to these communities.”

Huffman added that industries also search for clean water when considering where to set up shop both for the immediate applications but also as a means of gauging the quality of life for their employees.

Looking to the future, Pitzer said the seeds have been planted on an ambitious project: The removal of the dam along the Cheat River near Albright. She said the dam has no flood-control capabilities and was used for cooling of the power plant near Albright that was decommissioned in 2012. With no way for the plant to be compatible with natural gas, she said the plant is a large brownfield with no further use. If the dam is removed, she said this could help make for 190 miles of unobstructed river for paddling, swimming and for fish to pass through. She said the possibility this much open river is almost unheard of in the developed world.

Staff writer Conor Griffith can be reached by at 304-395-3168 or by email at [email protected]

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