State of the Cheat River Watershed Fall 2020

Formed in 1994, Friends of the Cheat (FOC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring, preserving, and promoting the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed. Based in Kingwood, WV, FOC focuses efforts on remediating acid mine drainage (AMD) in the lower section of the watershed, where the Cheat and surrounding tributaries suffered from a 100-year legacy of coal mining and timbering.

After years of working with local landowners, partnering agencies and businesses, and the construction of 18 AMD treatment systems, the Cheat River, once completely devoid of life, is no longer considered impaired for pH, and acid-sensitive fish are now found at the mouth of Muddy Creek and throughout the Cheat mainstem. To celebrate and raise awareness for the continued restoration of the Cheat River, FOC hosts the Cheat River Festival on the river banks near Albright each May - the 26th Cheat Fest was held virtually in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

FOC’s continuing success in restoring the Cheat River has allowed the organization to focus energy towards our Recreation and River Access program -which comprises of supporting public access points along the Cheat mainstem and Big Sandy Creek, facilitating the growth of the Cheat River Water Trail, stewardship of Section 1 of the Allegheny Trail, and construction of the Cheat River Rail-Trail and Trailhead.

FOC’s RE-CREATE and RE-CREATING projects will result in the first phase of construction on the Cheat River Rail-Trail (breaking ground in 2021!), followed by the Cheat River Trailhead at the locally known “Preston Site” along Rt 72. Aimed to stimulate and diversify Preston County’s economy and strengthen its communities, FOC’s water and non-motorized trail projects showcase the myriad of recreational opportunities within the Cheat watershed and beyond. Additionally, FOC worked with our 2020 featured partner, Downstream Strategies, to devise and create the first Preston County Master Trail Plan for the newly formed Mountaineer Trail Network. FOC has a vision for outdoor recreation in Preston County, and is excited to play such an integral role in the planning and infrastructure build-out to revitalize and promote our outstanding natural resources.

FOC Staff: Madison Ball, Owen Mulkeen, Amanda Pitzer, Garrett Richardson, and Beth Warnick

Staff roster:

  • Amanda Pitzer, Executive Director (2010)
  • Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director (2013)
  • Madison Ball, Restoration Program Manager (2018)
  • Garrett Richardson, Monitoring Technician (2020)
  • Beth Warnick, Outreach & Media Specialist (2015)
  • Valorie Dixon, Bookkeeper (2014)

Board roster:

  • Lisa Maraffa, Board Chair
  • Charlie Walbridge, Vice Chair
  • Stratford Douglas, Treasurer
  • Sarah Hinnant, Secretary
  • Connie Miller
  • Ben Hogan
  • Rick Chaney
  • Zach Fowler
  • Michael Strager
  • Dani Martin
  • Rich Dennis
Cheat Lake October 2020

In Support of Reauthorizing the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act:

What We Stand to Lose

The Cheat River Watershed we cherish today for its wild waters, outstanding recreational opportunities, and rebounding fishery wasn’t always so. Cheat Lake’s pH averaged less than 5.0 prior to 1990 from the effects of acid mine drainage, and was dominated by acid-tolerant fish, such as Brown Bullhead and White Sucker.

In recent years, pH has rebounded, and now 44 species have been documented in Cheat Lake, including acid intolerant fish such as Smallmouth Bass and Walleye (Smith 2018). Similar discoveries are being documented in the Cheat River mainstem. WVDEP’s Final Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report recognized that the Cheat River no longer violated the pH standard in 2012, and Walleye have now been found as far upstream as below the dam in Albright, WV. Paddlers are able to enjoy the Cheat Canyon without the nosebleeds, stinging eyes, and dry skin that acid mine drainage causes with heavy exposure. Scientists and citizens are celebrating alike.

Many are familiar with this phoenix-like tale of the Cheat, but what if the past were to repeat itself? What if we were to lose the progress so many have worked hard for?

Fickey Run Portal

Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) treatment is never “one-and-done” restoration work. Because the acid and associated metals that pour from abandoned coal mines are produced by geology laden with pyrite (commonly known as fool’s gold), these sources will produce pollutants for the remainder of our lifetimes, and likely those of our children and grandchildren, and perhaps beyond. On average, FOC treatment systems are able to tackle pollutants for 10 - 20 years before losing their buffering capacity, thus needing a system overhaul, and at no small cost--FOC treatment sites can cost anywhere from $175,000 - $750,000 depending on the severity of the sources treated.

Blood Lagoon Abandoned Mine Land Site

So, who foots a large portion of the bill for projects like this?

Enter the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 (SMCRA). Prior to SMCRA, the negative effects of coal mining were left unregulated. Coal companies were not held liable for the ecological damage caused by the AMD that emanated from the abandoned mines that were no longer lucrative. Part of SMCRA established the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) reclamation program fund, which authorizes the collection of fees on current coal producers on a per ton coal produced basis. These funds are then distributed as AML grants, which provides funding to groups such as FOC to build and maintain AMD treatment systems on these abandoned mine lands.

However, the AML fee collection is set to expire in 2021 if Congress does not reauthorize it-- meaning groups like FOC will lose a major source of funding for AMD projects.

Not only will FOC not be able to implement new projects, FOC and other groups will not be able to maintain existing sites, meaning we stand to lose the progress we all have worked so hard for.

So, which Cheat do you choose? We are calling on support of everyone who cares for the Cheat River and Cheat Lake to use their voices to address this looming issue. Please reach out to your local, state, and federal officials to express your concern and what YOU stand to lose without the reauthorization of the SMCRA AML fund.

Beaver Creek Watershed Future Plans

FOC completed construction of its most recent passive treatment system this summer in the Beaver Creek watershed. This treatment system will treat the most severe source of AMD to Beaver Creek of the Big Sandy Creek, and has been on FOC’s radar for treatment since our early years. Prior to treatment, this site alone contributes on average 1,873 pounds of aluminum and 1,901 pounds of iron to Beaver Creek per year!

While the Beaver Creek mainstem is still impaired, it is also home to sensitive fish species, such as trout, and other aquatic life, like the beavers the stream is named for. AMD treatment in Beaver Creek directly improves conditions for the organisms that dwell in the Beaver Creek Watershed. Thus, it has been a priority stream for FOC since the beginning.

In retrospect, this project has been one of FOC’s most challenging; we jumped many hurdles to see this project from start to finish, including passing the project along through 4 FOC Restoration Program Managers, a painfully long and complicated permitting process, a critical funding shortfall, unforeseen site complexities, and learning how to work safely in the advent COVID-19. We cut our teeth on this project, and seeing the initial results of the effort make it all worthwhile. Post construction monitoring shows the water exiting the system is pH 7 or greater with significant metal reductions. Improvements have also been noticed in the unnamed tributary of Beaver Creek that the treated water from the site flows into, as well as Beaver Creek Mainstem.

This most recent Beaver Creek AMD Treatment Project is one of 4 priority sites FOC has identified in the larger Big Sandy Creek Watershed for treatment. Based on FOC’s findings, once these four treatment sites are constructed, it is likely that the receiving streams (Beaver Creek, Little Sandy Creek, Sovern Run) will no longer be impaired for pH, aluminum, or iron. Based on preliminary water quality monitoring, it is also likely that the Big Sandy Creek may be no longer impaired for pH and iron impairments. FOC plans to launch a large scale in-stream water quality monitoring effort to determine current impairment of Big Sandy Creek in 2021.

Eastern Hellbender feeding on its main prey source - crayfish. Photo by Chad Landress

Albright Dam & Hellbender E-DNA

New in 2020, FOC is planning a reconnaissance study for removal of the Albright Power Dam on the Cheat River. The Albright Power Dam was built to feed the adjacent Albright coal-fired Power Plant’s cooling towers. The Albright Power Plant closed in 2012, and it has been made clear there are no plans for reopening or converting the plant for other types of energy production.

The Cheat River is special in that only two dams or barriers exist on its entire 78.3 miles-- the Lake Lynn Dam at Cheat Lake, and the Albright Power Dam. Removal of the Albright Power Dam will reconnect 75 miles of the Cheat River mainstem. For context, a study published in 2000 found that fewer than 60 rivers in the contiguous United States have more than 100 km (62 miles) of free flowing unimpounded water (Doyle et al 2000).

One such species that stands to benefit is the Eastern Hellbender, which are found in the Cheat River mainstem, and are the largest salamander species in North America, reaching lengths of two feet. These gentle giants are in decline and need free flowing water unimpaired by sediment, and dams and impoundments are some of their largest threats. Removal of the Albright Power Dam will improve conditions for this species, and FOC recently wrapped up our first ever environmental-DNA monitoring effort to better understand Eastern Hellbender distribution across the watershed. During the sampling effort, river water is passed through a filter at the sample location, which is then tested for Eastern Hellbender DNA at a laboratory. Results from the testing will allow FOC to “map” positive DNA results, and collect subsequent samples in gap areas in 2021.

Garrett Richardson folds a sample filter

Freefolk Brewery out of Fayetteville, WV crafted a limited edition special concoction in the name of the Eastern Hellbender, and a portion of the funds from sale of ‘Allegheny Alligator’ have be donated to FOC in the name of Eastern Hellbender eDNA monitoring. The bottled beers feature beautifully drawn artwork by WV artist and Freefolk owner, Jamie Lester.


Photo caption: Downstream Strategies staff celebrate the installation of the solar array at their Morgantown office. From back to front, left to right: Evan Hansen, Kendra Hatcher, Marc Glass, Kasey Osborne, Patty Boros, Will Postelthwait, Aspen, Joey James, Jenny Newland, Henry, Sara Cottingham, and Heather Jewell. Not pictured: Meghan Betcher, Evan Fedorko, Ethan Flannigan, Tom Rebar, Josh Saville.

This year we would like to highlight a project partner that has been involved in a myriad of projects with FOC over the past and present. From watershed based planning to our latest project, the Preston County Master Trail Plan, Downstream has been a reliable and enthusiastic contractor to bring a high level of technical assistance to FOC’s important projects.

Downstream Strategies is an environmental and economic development consulting firm with offices in Morgantown, Davis, and Lewisburg. The company offers a diverse slate of programs and services that strengthen economies, sustain healthy environments, and build resilient communities.

In recent years, Downstream Strategies has been a key partner and service provider for several major FOC initiatives. Downstream Strategies’ grant writing assistance has helped FOC secure three major grants to date from the AML Pilot Program and ARC POWER Initiative, which has brought in millions of dollars for the economic transformation of the Cheat River watershed and Preston County.

In addition, the firm’s restoration and remediation program has been very involved with the Cheat River Rail-Trail, conducting environmental assessments for the trail as well as assisting in trailhead design procurement for the Preston Site.

And since 2019, Downstream Strategies’ trail planning staff joined forces with FOC to undertake the first planning efforts for the Mountaineer Trail Network, a planned network of mountain biking–focused trail systems that will span 15 counties in northern West Virginia.

Through the team’s 2019 POWER grant, Downstream Strategies completed the first comprehensive trail plan for Preston County and the Mountaineer Trail Network, which was released by FOC in July 2020. This plan pilots a custom planning methodology designed to help leaders, trail advocates, and Mountaineer Trail Network representatives in Preston County guide local trail development in a way that maximizes economic and community benefit. Committed to seizing this game-changing opportunity for our region, Downstream Strategies remains a key partner conducting ongoing education, outreach, and initial facilitation work for the Network.