By MATT COMBS
BECKLEY, W.Va. — A five-year process that could impact tourism in Fayette County and the greater southern West Virginia area is coming to a close in the next month.
According to Bobby Bower, executive director of West Virginia Professional River Outfitters Association, a decision from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission(FERC) on water flows at the Hawks Nest Dam is expected to be handed down in the near future.
While Bower and other outfitters are waiting and hoping for as many scheduled release days as possible, not all are supportive of the idea, most notably the entire congressional contingent from West Virginia.
In a rare form of bi-partisanship, West Virginia’s two senators and three congressmen all signed a letter concerning any mandatory flows at Hawks Nest.
“American Whitewater said it’s the first time they’ve seen an entire state’s delegation opposed to anything like this,” Bower said.
While the letter never directly comes out against whitewater flows, the language suggests just that, Bower said.
“We write to express our concern over the relicensing for the Hawks Nest Hydroelectric Project in Alloy, West Virginia,” the letter begins. “It is our understanding that possible conditions being considered for the renewal of the license would have significant impacts on the hydroelectric facility as well as its dependent businesses. Any substantial modifications to the existing conditions have the potential to cause major operational hardships for a manufacturer in the region that depends on the affordable, reliable power of the hydroelectric project.”
The letter goes on to imply that if mandated “operational changes” are made, that jobs at the Alloy plant will be impacted.
“It’s simply not true,” Bower said. “There’s plenty of water to be shared. There’s just a lot of greed and they want it all. This is a public river, you own it, I own it.”
According to Bower, those parties that want to see scheduled water release dates have agreed that water will only be released if the plant downstream has its 1,600 cubic feet per second that it needs to power the facility in Alloy.
“It’s not like we’re just going to shut it down so people could go rafting,” Bower said.
Twenty-years ago, the last time FERC relicensed the dam, minimum flows through the natural section of the New River were limited to 100 cubic feet per second, unless the tunnel’s maximum intake level of 10,000 cubic feet per second was reached, in which case excess water would be released down the Dries.
Speaking on the letter from West Virginia’s congressional delegation, Bower said he is disappointed in the state’s leadership.
“It’s a shame that West Virginia is not looking forward,” he said. “The state has seen the benefits of tourism working together in partnership with industry and these areas are booming.”
While releases do happen, they are totally mandated by Mother Nature, with no clear-cut schedule of when they will occur.
With the relicensing of the dam taking place, Bower said that he and other outfitters are hopeful that all parties involved will be able to schedule trips around water release dates, an event he said would lead to an uptick in predictable tourism.
The outfitter said that he has seen first hand the success that dam release dates have had in other states.
According to Bower, he toured dam release rafting areas along the Lehigh, Deerfield and Kennebec rivers.
“It didn’t hurt the utility,” Bower said. “Of course it hurt them a few dollars, but then the economic boost of tourism has more than offset any type of negative impact of the flows.”
While Bower said that New River Gorge rafting numbers have been slowly decreasing over the last decade, he said he believes that flows through the Dries would give the local rafting industry a shot in the arm.
Comparing the Dries to a flow on the Pigeon River in Tennessee that he said has seen increasing tourism numbers, Bower said that a Dries flow would be a good medium between longer family-friendly floats through the Gorge and the intense flows from Gauley season.
Bower also added that a Dries run would be relatively quick, a fact that he believes will draw in more visitors.
“They want to come, they want to go rafting and then they want to go do a bridge walk or go ride ATVs down at Hatfield and McCoys,” Bower said. “People want to get a lot more into a short window of time it seems like.”
Bower added that the benefits of tourism can be seen directly in the town that he calls home, Fayetteville.
“If you look at Fayetteville, there’s not a boarded up window in town,” Bower said. “You can’t rent a space. It’s full, it’s happening, it’s jamming. It’s not because of anything else, it’s tourism and it’s sustainable. People are coming here. People are coming from out of state and raising their families in Fayetteville. You don’t see that in most towns in southern West Virginia.”
While Bower said that Fayetteville has directly benefited from tourism, he also said that he believes that those benefits are spread out over the entire state and that scheduled flows could possibly help other regional towns.
While the benefits may be the goose that lays the golden egg for Bower, Jonathan Grose is hesitant to put all his chips on the table.
Grose, the young mayor of Gauley Bridge, is stuck straddling rivers, both figuratively and emotionally.
The small town that is home to three rivers; the New, the Gauley and their offspring the Kanawha, is also equidistant between the tourist-rich New River Gorge and the industry-rich Kanawha River Valley.
Grose must weigh the costs and benefits and multiple outcomes and is well aware that the whole situation is well out of the hands of those in Gauley Bridge.
“It’s difficult,” Grose said. “We, of course, want to support Alloy and we want to make sure that there are jobs, but we also realize that this is sort of out of our control.”
Seeing concerned parties pulling hard in both directions, Grose said that he is just waiting for the word from Washington on any if any release dates.
“We would just like to be in a position where we could benefit from it if it’s going to happen,” the young mayor said.
While Grose is waiting on the word on possible Dries releases, he and the Town of Gauley Bridge aren’t wasting time.
“Tourism would help the Town of Gauley Bridge,” Grose said. “We have a lot of growth that we need to do; tourism is, of course, a part of that, but we’re not just tied to the New. That’s one of the nice things about where Gauley Bridge sits.”
According to Grose, rafting trips down the Gauley and into the riverside town are being discussed for next year.
The mayor said that any one decision is not going to save or kill the small town and that the goal of any endeavor is to bring in fresh blood to the area.
“It’s (tourism) going to help,” Grose said. “Is it going to revitalize a lot, probably not. But the more people we have coming through the town, then the more opportunities there are for Joe Blow to say ‘Hey, let’s open up a small business here.”
Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH
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