Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: Cheat River Festival welcomes new era

by Charlie Walbridge

After a two-year absence, the Cheat River Festival returns to Albright today from 5:30-10 p.m. and tomorrow from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. This annual riverside party is Friends of the Cheat’s biggest fundraiser, which helps to “restore, preserve and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River Watershed.”

The 1994 T&T Mine Blowout on Muddy Creek sent a flood of polluted water downstream and left a 10-foot-wide orange  ring down Cheat Canyon and around Cheat Lake. A short time later, a small group of river guides, fishermen and local residents sat around a kitchen table and created Friends of the Cheat.

The first Cheat River Festival raised enough money to hire an executive director, who began reaching out to government, businesses and local residents. They brought together the resources, technology and expertise needed to address acid mine drainage and other pollution problems in the Cheat River.

Over the past 20 years, FOC’s efforts have brought in over $4.5 million in investments to clean up abandoned mine sites and improve water quality, primarily done by local contractors in Preston County. Now, the organization is well-positioned to get a share of the $2.1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands funds coming to West Virginia over the next 15 years.

There have been some very tangible results. The lower Cheat River in 1970 was a dead, orange stream with brown foam in the eddies. Today it is a clean, handsome watercourse that supports fish, eagles, otters and blue herons. The Allegheny Trail provides access to the recently protected Cheat Canyon WMA. It’s West Virginia’s best kept secret.

This past year was also the culmination of a decadeslong effort to create a rail-trail along the beautiful Cheat Narrows. It started almost 20 years ago with a $294,000 earmark from Congressman Mollohan. In 2018 and 2019, grants totaling $4.1 million were awarded to do the construction work. Former Director Keith Pitzer saw the old Preston Coal Prep Site, long abandoned, and had a vision for a community space. FOC bought it. Now it will build a destination trailhead and pavilion to create a new recreational site for hikers, bikers and fishermen.

This year, the big news is the removal of Albright Dam is moving forward. Like many people in the area, I was sorry to see the Albright Power Plant shut down. It was a good neighbor, and several employees over the years served on the FOC Board. But times change. After years of study and planning, FOC was awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the obsolete dam.

The Albright Dam is over 70 years old — and looks it. It generates no electricity, blocks fish migration and poses a real hazard to recreational users. Years ago, after a day of raft guiding in the Cheat Canyon, we were relaxing in Albright when we heard cries for help. A raft loaded with people had washed over the drop and was stuck in the deadly hydraulic backwash at the bottom. Dam hydraulics, called “drowning machines” by swiftwater rescuers, have killed many people over the years. We got our ropes out and rescued the group. Without our help, someone would have died.

Once the Albright Dam is removed, the Cheat will be navigable from its headwaters in Shavers Fork all the way to Cheat Lake. River connectivity is vitally important to a river’s health, because it gives aquatic species access to the entire system to seek out the best habitat and forage. A continuous, healthy river is important to paddlers, too! The dam in its current state cannot be portaged, making several miles of river above the dam unusable.

Clean water and abundant, accessible recreation draws people to visit, to live and to work in West Virginia. Friends of the Cheat is working towards a more prosperous future. Come walk the riverbank and see for yourself!

Charlie Walbridge lives in Bruceton Mills and has been paddling the area’s rivers for over 50 years. He is a board member of American Whitewater and Friends of the Cheat.