Proposed dam removal is next step in Cheat River’s incredible comeback

ALBRIGHT, W.Va. — A conservation organization dedicated to improving the Cheat River is ready to take the next step in the long waterway restoration. Cheating Friends recently received a commitment of over $1 million in federal funding for the removal of the dam on the river in Albright.

The dam was built in the 1950s to create a water supply for the Albright Power Station. However, the station has been decommissioned and is now inactive. Although the future of the property is uncertain, power generation has disappeared for good and river advocates believe this is a good opportunity to remove the dam to improve access to the river, for paddlers, anglers and fish.

“There’s no need for that now. It’s a barrier to fish movement and it eliminates about eight miles of floating fishing water because there’s no access around the dam,” Frank Jernejcic said in a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors.

Jernejcic is a retired fisheries biologist for the Wrest Virginia DNR who has dedicated countless hours in both his professional and personal time to improving the quality of the river. He said these efforts are paying off.

“This was a remarkable turnaround and much of the credit goes to Friends of Cheating who mobilized federal and state funds to organize the cleanup and remediation of the many abandoned mine drains occurring in the watershed,” did he declare. .

This Cheat River smallmouth bass would have been unheard of three decades ago, but the work of the Friends of Cheat, DNR, DEP and concerned anglers has changed the history of the waterway.

By the late 1980s, the river was almost a dead waterway. It was on the list of the most polluted rivers in the country and was almost devoid of all aquatic life. The organization lobbied for water quality improvement policies and won federal and state grants that began eliminating sources of acid mine drainage one by one. Only a few remain to be fixed and the rebound of the fishery is a testament to the efforts made.

According to Jernejcic, the fish are simply healthier.

“Back then, if you caught an 18-inch smallmouth bass in the Cheat, it was about a pound lighter than one caught in the New River. Those were conditions where the fish were lean and skinny, but now they rival the New River. It’s impressive,” he said.

Even more impressive were the reports of beautiful muskellunge and walleye caught on the river over the past few months. Both species are the most sensitive to water quality.

“The musky came from upstream following a flooded pond at Bowden Hatchery about ten years ago. The walleye came upstream from Cheat Lake. Once the dam is removed, these fish will swim up at Parsons. Removing the dam is a benefit to all fish species. Jernejcic explained.

Leaders from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior traveled to Albright to announce the $1 million award from the bipartisan infrastructure act signed by President Biden. The Albright Dam Removal Project is one of 40 fish passage projects in 28 states to be funded with nearly $38 million under the National Fish Passage Program this fiscal year. The funds are intended to remove dams, culverts, levees or other outdated, obsolete or hazardous obstacles to fish passage or water conductivity.

Beyond the fish benefits of the Cheat River, public accessibility to the river will be greatly increased.

“This will give us two new access sites, one upstream of the dam about five or six miles and a second about a mile and a half downstream. Both are owned by Cheating Friends, so they will be a public establishment,” he said.

The money is guaranteed and work should start next year. First Energy still owns the property and negotiations are continuing on what will happen to the plant’s ownership in the future.

“We hope to work with First Energy. We don’t know what they are going to do with the property, but it will never be used as a power plant again,” Jernejcic said.

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