American Whitewater reached an important milestone this week in our efforts to restore flows and public access to the New River Dries. Earlier this summer American Whitewater appealed a State decision to provide only 3-4 paddling releases annually, and vehicular access that required a 1.2-mile hike to the put in at the dam. On Tuesday the State issued an improved decision following over a month of negotiations, and in exchange American Whitewater withdrew our appeal. The New River Dries is a big, beautiful, ancient river with vast recreational potential, however it is virtually dewatered an average of 281 days per year by the Hawks Nest hydropower project.
The State’s decision was made through issuing a water quality certificate that federal regulators (FERC) must adopt. The revised certificate includes:
While an improvement over their earlier decision, the restoration of only 3% of lost paddling days and the lack of vehicular access to the put in mark massive missed opportunities to restore a vibrant and valuable New River. Importantly though, while the State strongly believes their certificate marks the appropriate balance of interests, the State explained that their certificate does not prohibit the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from requiring additional releases and access. This was a critical factor in our decision to withdraw our appeal.
Late last year, FERC indicated they believed at least 15 releases where recreation takes priority and a study of vehicular access to the dam were justified. The unusual limiting factor with the Dries is that the hydropower project provides a special kind of power to a nearby alloy plant, which requires the lion’s share of summer base flows (1600cfs) to operate. American Whitewater has proposed that FERC grant priority to 1600cfs for the alloy plant, while scheduling 41 release days. Of these 41 days, an average of 7 days will be provided by unplanned spills, and 9 will be cancelled because of inadequate flows. Thus, paddlers will get 32 days of generally predictable paddling and the power company only has to actively provide 25 of them. We continue to feel this proposal is a reasonable compromise.
American Whitewater will now ask FERC once again to consider our flow and access restoration plan that is sensitive to other interests. At that point, the fate of the New River will be in the hands of federal regulators at FERC.