When the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the National Fish Passage Program in April, representatives from the agency chose Albright, West Virginia as the place to do it. Director of US Fish and Wildlife, Martha Williams, and Assistant Secretary for Fish, Parks and Wildlife Shannon Estenoz stood on the banks of the Cheat River with Friends of the Cheat Executive Director Amanda Pitzer.
“I have to say it was so exciting, an absolute whirlwind. We have been vying for funding for the project, and really just kind of waiting and unsure what was going to happen,” Pitzer said.
Friends of the Cheat has spent nearly 30 years cleaning up the Cheat River from acid mine drainage and other industrial pollution. When Friends of the Cheat was formed in the 1990s, the river would regularly register pH levels of 4. That’s just above stomach acid.
“Through the 30s 40s 50s 60s 70s and 80s even into the 90s the Cheat River was essentially dead,” Pitzer said. “In 1994 there was a large pollution event, a big blowout from the TNT coal mine, and that really woke everybody up.”
Over the years, cleanup efforts have been successful and life has returned to the river in the form of more than 40 fish species, including angler favorites like walleye. Pitzer and Friends of the Cheat have advocated for the removal of the dam at Albright as the next step in the river’s restoration since before the power station ceased operation in 2012.
“The dam at Albright is not only an impediment to recreational paddlers, but now it is imperative that we remove the dam because we have life back in this river,” Pitzer said.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, colloquially called the bipartisan infrastructure bill, will help make that desire a reality by 2023 with a grant of $1 million.
It’s an expansive law, appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars for all kinds of projects. That means that while the Department of the Interior can give Friends of the Cheat money to remove a dam, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can spend $500 million for dam safety and maintenance elsewhere.
Dams serve multiple purposes. The National Inventory of Dams, a database of all of the nation’s major water barriers, classifies dams for hydroelectric power, navigation, flood control, and even recreation.
“The Albright dam, that’s like apples and oranges here,” said Brian Farkas, executive director of the West Virginia Conservation Agency. His organization is tasked with protecting and conserving West Virginia’s soil, water and related resources. The dams he works with were built to control flooding, and are staying firmly put for the time being.
“You have to realize the design of these dams in the watershed program,” Farkas said. “They are designed to work in unison, not individually. Each plays a role in the overall flood protection in that section of the watershed.”
In the aftermath of the 1930s Dust Bowl, the U.S. was alerted to the need to protect its topsoil from erosion and degradation. Starting in the 1940s, dams were built to control flow of local streams and rivers near farmland, and organizations like the West Virginia Conservation Agency were formed.
As was the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“In West Virginia, you know, there’s limited space for development, and we have narrow valleys,“ said Andy Deichert, state conservation engineer for the NRCS in West Virginia. He works closely with Farkas on protecting West Virginia’s farmlands, as well as its residents.
Deichert said that dams once built to protect farmland now retain water above people’s homes.
“We do have 36 dams that we assisted with that were not designed as a high hazard potential dam,” he said. “There may have not been much downstream of that dam when it was designed and built.”
The term “high hazard potential” is a measure of impact on human life in the case of a dam’s failure, and not a measure of the dam’s quality or structural status.
“Since the 50s, until now, there has been changing criteria for dam design and construction,” Deichert said. “In the past, when some of these first dams were built, a couple of homes directly downstream of the dam wouldn’t necessarily make it high hazard. But now all it takes is one person or the threat of one person’s life to be at stake to make it high hazard.”
According to the National Inventory of Dams, there are just over 560 dams in the state. Of those, over 400 are classified as high hazard.
The NRCS and the West Virginia Conservation Agency oversee 170 dams in the state, and all of them are high hazard. With the average age of many of the dams exceeding 50 years, there is a need for the money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but accessing those funds is a different story.
“The bipartisan infrastructure law did nothing to change the cost share match,” Farkas said. “So in order for any of that money to flow down to the state of West Virginia, through the NRCS, to the WVCA, and then to these dams, the state of West Virginia is going to have to come up with a match.”
While the removal of the dam at Albright is far from simple, its impact is straightforward. It’s a piece of infrastructure that has outlived its purpose, collecting cooling water for a power station that no longer needs it.
The systems Farkas and Deichert are working with are complex.
“The bipartisan money is good, if we can get it,” Farkas said. “But it comes with the recognition that it’s not for free. And the state’s going to have to come up with a 35% match.”
Farkas estimates they need at least $55 million from the state of West Virginia to cover the costs but he is pragmatic.
If all goes to plan, the dam at Albright will be gone next year, but the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act isn’t going anywhere soon. Hopefully none of the state’s high hazard dams have problems before the money can be sorted out.