ALBRIGHT — This week, surveyors hired by Friends of the Cheat started collecting data to study the feasibility of removing the Albright Dam and reconnecting the Cheat River from Parsons to Cheat Lake.
“Before we move anything forward, first we need to figure out and collect the data necessary to answer a lot of unknown questions,” said Madison Ball, program restoration manager for FOC.
She explained the data includes topographic surveys, bathymetric surveys, drone imaging and geomorphic assessments,
“What they’re trying to do is map out the river in the valley and the river bottom to basically get models to understand how the river can change if we were to move forward with removing the dam.”
One tool used by the survey team is a catamaran platform drone called a HyDrone, produced by Seafloor Systems for remote hydrosurveys. It’s used to collect data about the bottom of the river channel, Ball said.
The primary concern behind the removal of the dam is the full restoration of the Cheat River, Ball said. FOC has worked with local communities, federal agencies and the state to clean up the river. The river was heavily polluted by acid mine drainage with few fish downstream of the Albright dam in the 80s and 90s.
Now, those species, including ones loved by anglers such as walleye and smallmouth bass, have rebounded in the river system. Ball explained connectivity is an important part of a river’s ecosystem and the ability to range further upstream to find food and suitable habitats make for healthier more stable populations.
“That’s really at the heart of, you know, why we’re pursuing this project,” Ball said.
The dam, which was built to feed the Albright Power Station’s cooling towers, doesn’t really have another purpose, Ball said. It’s not built to hold back floodwaters and could cause issues if it were to fail. Removing the 70-year-old dam now, before it becomes a danger to the public, is a proactive measure.
The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, closed in 2012 and the company has said it’s not viable to convert the plant to gas.
Removing the dam could also provide a boost to tourism and the economy, Ball said. Historically, walleye have been spotted near Parsons and a population has been successfully reintroduced to Cheat Lake by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Without the Albright dam, they could travel upstream again – potentially allowing for walleye fishing from Rowlesburg to Parsons.
Before the dam, that section of the Cheat River was a mellow section of river with whitewater above and below it. Without the dam, Preston County residents could enjoy a nice flatwater experience without having to go to Tucker County, Ball said.
Someone with the appropriate skill set in whitewater rafting could travel from Parsons to Cheat Lake. Ball said bringing more people into the area will hopefully bring a flourish in small businesses providing places to stay, eat, and get supplies.
Ball emphasized the work being done is just for preliminary design work and a feasibility study.
“We’re really trying to do our due diligence and leave no stone unturned with this study,” Ball said. “I know there’s a lot of folks that have questions about what this could mean for the river system and we want to investigate each one of those questions very thoroughly before moving forward with the project.”