Into the Canyon Fall 2023 Newsletter of Friends of the Cheat

Immediate Business:

  1. Friday, Nov. 24 and/or Saturday, Nov. 25 - Volunteers needed to perform AMD treatment site property maintenance between Bruceton and Albright. Contact FOC Project Coordinator, Garrett Richardson. To sign up - email grichardson@cheat.org.

Into the Canyon - Newsletter of Friends fo the Cheat Fall 2023

Board of Directors and Key Personnel

Amanda Pitzer, Executive Director; Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director; Madison Ball, Conservation Program Director; Garrett Richardson, Monitoring Technician; Lauren Todesko, Bookkeeper; Beth Warnick, Media and Outreach Specialist; Lisa Maraffa, Program Assistant and Events Producer

Board Members

Chair: Rich Dennis, Vice-Chair: Chris Wade, Treasurer: Miranda Peddicord, Secretary: Michael Strager, Charlie Walbridge, Sarah Hinnant, Connie Miller, Ben Hogan, Rick Chaney, Zach Fowler, Dani Martin, Justin Reedy

Building Bridges: Friends of the Cheat Completes First Aquatic Organism Passage Project

by Madison Ball, Conservation Program Director

Indian Run Private Drive Crossing after completing construction, September 2023

“Out of the AMD and into the AOP” is our latest phrase here at FOC. While acid mine drainage (AMD) remediation will always be at the heart of our restoration efforts, FOC has been expanding our work to include new types of restoration. Aquatic Organism Passage (AOP) is a restoration strategy that improves the connectivity of a stream or river system.

Manmade structures such as road crossings, dams, and culverts can act as barriers for aquatic species to move freely in a stream or river, isolating populations from one another or eliminating them from entire reaches.

This can have real consequences for our freshwater species in the Cheat and our tributaries, who may need to migrate long distances to find the best habitat for spawning and feeding, or in the case of brook trout, to find cold water in the peak of summer.

While some stream barriers occur naturally, such as waterfalls, human infrastructure has created a large number of barriers on our streams in a relatively short amount of time, which has impaired and fragmented our aquatic populations. Undersized road crossings can also negatively affect people and landowners, worsening the effects of flooding and causing bank erosion.

Our Conservation Program team had been looking to implement an AOP project on one of our headwater streams but wondered where to start. There are over 9,000 unsurveyed crossings for aquatic organism passage in the Cheat River watershed. Luckily, our staff didn’t have to ponder too hard-- the opportunity found FOC.

While conducting landowner outreach for our tree planting efforts in the Upper Cheat watershed, Conservation Program Director Madison Ball was contacted by Mr. Bill Holler, who lived on Indian Run of the Left Fork of Clover Run. Indian Run is a Tier 3 trout stream, which is the highest quality status the state of WV gives to streams, and only assigns this status to streams that have naturally reproducing trout populations.

While working together on the tree planting project, Madison remembers Mr. Holler asking, “Do you think you could help me with this?”

The double culvert driveway was catching material that would come down in annual flooding events each year, causing the flow to erode the banks and route along his driveway.

Double culverts in flood conditions, causing “fire-hose” effect

It also sat perched, meaning that during certain times of the year, fish would not be able to pass from downstream to upstream. Both the WV Division of Highways and the US Forest Service had improved road crossings that were acting as barriers upstream of this location in recent years. If this crossing were to be replaced, all of Indian Run would be reconnected year-round for trout. “I think we could help with that,” I remember responding with a smile.

Nearly two years later, and with the help of funders such as the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and partners including AllStar Ecology, Solid Rock Excavating, Canaan Valley Institute, and the WV Division of Natural Resources, the project has been completed, and Indian Run reconnected.

While the survey work, grant writing, and permit acquisition took up the bulk of those two years, the construction of the new bridge itself only took 10 days to complete thanks to our skilled contractors. Over those two years, another bridge was also built, one between FOC staff and Mr. Holler, who has been a wonderful landowner to work with, is the reason this project was even possible and is considered a true friend.

Madison and Mr. Holler stand on the completed bridge

With our first AOP project complete, FOC will continue to grow this program, and has its sights set on working with the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge to reconnect Freeland Run in the coming years, and is working with the US Forest Service to assess culverts for future replacements on public lands. However, rivers and streams don’t follow human-determined property boundaries-- if we are to improve the connectivity of our streams and reduce the risk of flooding, working with private landowners will be the key to our success.


Cheat Watershed Sponsors: Walbridge Family Foundation, Charlie Walbridge, Eliza Walbridge, Margaret Walbridge, Patrick & Lisa Ward, Tom & Hope Covey, Robert Uram, Community Foundation for a greater Richmond, Randy Robinson

Cheat River Sponsors: Richard Volkman, The Oakland Foundation, Szilagyi Family Foundation, The Reed Foundation, Scott Mitchell & Dan Cardinali, Northeast Natural Energy

Stream Stewards: Joe Sinsheimer & Toddi Steelman, John & Emy Hinnant, Don & Susan Sauter, John Guilfoose, Peter Lusardi, David Brisell, Calleva Outdoor Inc, Hoffman Construction Company, Newton Gorrell, Stratford Douglas & Jodie Jackson, Bill & Megan Carlson, Fred & Kim Wright, Mark Gavin & Jodi Goodman, Ryan Radtka, Marina 1, LLC

For the period July 2 through October 20, 2023

Canyon Contributors: Jack & Ann Clough, Gregory Edwards & Judy Stapel, Bronnie Stroud

Narrows Navigators: Eriks Janelsins, Nathaniel Comfort, Fern Abrams & David Talmage, Adam Webster, Caitlin Sullivan, Johnathan Myers

Confluence Crew: Jack Lewis, High Ground Brewing, Glenn Child, Paul Miller, Christopher Sergeant, Alan Simms, Thierry Rosenheck, Dan Henninger, Martin Christ & Kathy Furbee, Delbert Royce, Amy Skeens, David Maribo, Mike & Jacquelyn Strager, Thomas Beres, Daniel McGough, Lizbeth Pyle

Five Forks Friends: Susan Gordon, Glenn Welch, Nancy & Charles Brabec, Roger Perry, Sharon Sunderland & T.J. Hawkins, Micahel Patrick Allender in memory of Mike Minke, Mark Eakin, Dallas & Jana Wolfe, The Ferris Family, Frank Williams, Lucretia Lee

Good Ole Friends: Jamie Pflasterer, Nikki Forrester, Charles Wade, Kaitlyn Snyder, Robert Tinnell, Anthony Varvoutis, Jay Paxton, Alexandra Coffman, Charles Kirby, Kevin Hughes, Sean O’Malley, Pat Blosser, Kara Weld, Dan & Susan Soeder, Philip Young, Jake Knaub, Chris Byrd, Carol Burdick, Jeremy Stout, Gary Schubert, Jennifer & Philip Raber

Swim Guide Donors: Lake Lynn Generation, Adam Webster, Theo, Colette, Sera, & Nico Zegre

Cheat River Rail-Trail: More Newly Constructed Bridges

by Owen Mulkeen, Associate Director

Newly rehabilitated bridge over Little Heather Run

Keeping with the theme of connecting two pieces of land by feats of engineering, FOC is proud to showcase our partnership with the WV Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Division of Multimodal Transportation Facilities and their work on the Cheat River Rail-Trail this summer.

The WVDOT’s CenForce crew of bridge specialists worked from mid-summer into fall rehabilitating and correcting major deficiencies in the first three bridges on the northern section of trail. This 3-mile section will run from the Cheat River Trailhead north towards Route 7 and crosses Morgan Run, Little Heather Run, and Big Heather Run. Unmaintained since the purchase from CSX (2015), these bridges needed considerable work to withstand the loads of construction equipment and emergency vehicles.

Before and after - bridge over Heather Run. All decking surfaces were replaced and safety fencing added.

With funds from our WVDEP AMLYER grant RECREATE, FOC purchased treated 8x10x10 oak bridge timbers to replace every single tie of the decking structures to bring the bridges up to safe load ratings. Workers used heavy excavating equipment to rehabilitate a failing wing wall on Big Heather Run Bridge, as well as shoring up the failing retaining walls on Little Heather Run Bridge. To put the finishing touches on the structures, FOC purchased pressure-treated lumber to complete the surfacing and safety fencing on the bridges. In a show of true attention to detail as to the needs of the job site, WVDOT cleared and grubbed the trail right of way AND cleared the ditches and culverts from years of sediment and debris.

WVDOT donated all labor, equipment, and stone materials for the project. FOC extends a huge show of gratitude for this truly great partnership that yielded huge cost savings and ensured quality craftsmanship to be enjoyed for years to come.

We are looking forward to getting this section of the trail bid out for construction sometime in the new year. The work remaining to be completed consists of culvert replacements, ditching improvements, and trail conditioning and surfacing. Trail users should expect to be able to park at the Cheat River Trailhead and use the first three miles of trail in 2024!

A Snorkel Summary: 5 Years Down the River

by Madison Ball, Conservation Program Coordinator

5th graders explore the Shavers Fork

Laughter, splashes, shrieks of delight and surprise, and the muffled words of a new language spoken through a tube: Snorkelish! These were the sounds that echoed across the summer at Friends of the Cheat.

It’s fitting that the fifth birthday of our snorkel program was our biggest year yet! Friends of the Cheat staff led or assisted with 13 events across our watershed, some in partnership with the US Forest Service. Over 350 people of all ages attended these events, both local folks and visitors to our great state.

Friends of the Cheat partners with Appalachian Expeditions to snorkel the Dry Fork

While snorkeling is without a doubt a day filled with fun, FOC staff make our message as clear as the water we snorkel in: these events are about establishing a lifelong love and appreciation for our river ecosystem. West Virginia and the Central Appalachians are home to some of the highest levels of aquatic biodiversity in the world. Dazzling darters, sparkling shiners, adventurous and inquisitive smallmouth bass, and the ever-popular “crawdad”, or my personal favorite, “crawcrab”, are common sights at these events. Countless times I have heard both kids and adults say to me, “I never knew there was so much living under here!” and “I’m going to buy/ask my parents to buy a snorkel when I get home.”

Banded Darter in Shavers Fork

At these events, the site location dictates the messaging. For our Cheat main stem site, our staff focuses on our origin story. The Cheat we snorkel in today did not have the abundance of life 50 or even 100 years ago. Fish kills were common at the turn of the century, and a deadly combination of acid mine drainage, untreated sewage, and tannery effluent were among the main causes. Now, we are in the dawn of a river renaissance, in part thanks to the Clean Water Act and our state and federal agencies, and equally in part due to local folks and groups who help to restore the river.

In our headwater sites on the Monongahela National Forest, we focus on what forests provide for river ecosystems. Clean and filtered water, stream shade, and stable banks are just a few benefits the forest gives to us. We also emphasize the important role each one of us has in public lands, and that everyone is welcome to enjoy them -- public lands belong to every one of us.

FOC staffer Lisa Maraffa displays a water penny

Friends of the Cheat’s snorkel program has been a wellspring of morale for staffers, who, most often, are knee-deep in acid mine drainage, fighting for their lives (figuratively speaking) in Microsoft Excel, or stuck in an online grant portal. I’ll share with you one story from this year that I’ll carry with me (and keep on my fridge) for years to come.

Jonathan was a fifth grader who attended one of our events this year with the rest of his class. Upon getting ready to get in the water, it was apparent that Jonathan was nervous. He had never snorkeled before, and was pretty distraught about the social pressure and told us he was “afraid to look stupid in front of everyone.” My heart nearly broke hearing this and I empathized with Jonathan. As someone who has taken on many new projects to widen our breadth of work at FOC, I also worry incessantly about “looking stupid in front of everyone.” We spent some time with Jonathan and encouraged him to try it out and if he wanted to stop at any time, he could. While nervous at first, he took to snorkeling like a fish in water. He was the first in the group to find a fish, to remember the names of fish, and had to be told a couple of times it was time to wrap up and head back. As we said goodbye to the class, Jonathan asked me what my job was because he wanted to do “exactly this” when he grew up.

Snorkeling superstar, Jonathan, in the Shaver’s Fork

A few weeks later, the teacher returned some surveys I’d asked the kids to fill out. Now, this one lives on my fridge and is what I look at when I need some encouragement.

Jonathan’s Note: “Hi Maddie, thank u for the scorching it was so fun and I am proud of everything that u do thanks”

As I wrap up this reflection, I think it’s important to note that our snorkel program is 100% DONOR funded. There are very few grant opportunities available for education and outreach that pay staff to initiate these types of programs. Your donations and member contributions allow us to keep the snorkel program going and are responsible for making these lifelong memories. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Happy Fall y’all! For a second year in a row, fall colors here in the Cheat watershed are popping! This time of year, in the morning, arriving at our little office on the hill is stunning. The bright leaves across the valley are lit up by the sunshine and the mist from the warm Cheat River rises from below.

Like last fall, I’ve been running around to various meetings and conferences. “Fall Tour” as I like to call it. While attending the annual WV Brownfields Conference at Oglebay in Wheeling, FOC staff also broke away from their hectic schedules to join me for a visit to The Good Zoo to learn about their Eastern hellbender program. A pal from my enviro ed days, Eriks Janelsins, is now the Director of Oglebay, so he hooked us up with a special tour, hosted by their curator Mindi White. In 2007, The Good Zoo was the first zoo in the world to hatch hellbender eggs in a zoo or aquarium setting. Since then they have raised thousands of hellbenders. Their “hellbender room” holds nearly 200 hellbenders of various ages and sizes. It was refreshing to be able to spend time with Mindi, someone who obviously cares deeply for all the animals under her watch, even our slimy friend Old Lasagna Sides. In September, a judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2019 denial of Endangered Species Act protection for the Eastern hellbender salamander was “arbitrary and unlawful.” This is great news for fans of hellbenders and healthy rivers and streams!

FOC staffer Madison Ball in the hellbender nursery

For 4 seasons, FOC has been collecting eDNA samples for analysis of Eastern hellbender across the watershed. This experience proved useful in the development of FOC comments on the relicensing of Eagle Creek’s hydropower facility and dam on Cheat Lake (Lake Lynn). As part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) mandated biomonitoring activities at the lake and its tailwaters, eDNA samples were collected and tested for American eel, the only species of freshwater eel in America. According to USFWS, “the American eel once made up over a quarter of the total fish found in many Atlantic coastal streams. Eels are catadromous, meaning they primarily live in rivers and estuaries, but migrate out to the ocean - the Sargasso Sea, to spawn.” 2021 eDNA testing in the Cheat Lake tailwaters (below the dam) revealed American eel eDNA in low quantity. The 2021 Annual Status Report submitted to FERC essentially brushed off this finding. However, FOC asserts that “While American Eel eDNA was found in low quantity in this study, it is inappropriate with the methods used to infer population size or abundance based on the quantity of eDNA detected.” American eel eDNA was found. Period. Counting out contamination, there is no other way American eel DNA could turn up in a sample. American eel are in the tailwaters of the Cheat River below the Lake Lynn dam. This conclusion is further backed by Creel Survey reports from 4 anglers who reported seeing an eel either in the Cheat Tailwaters or nearby in the Monongahela River.

Public interest surrounding the relicensing process for the Cheat Lake/Lake Lynn hydropower project has grown significantly following the release and amplification of details on a proposed change to the Project Boundary. A packed, public hearing was held on September 25th with nearly every speaker voicing their concerns on the proposed removal of ~307 acres of land from the Project Boundary. FOC submitted a set of comments to FERC on October 23. FOC’s comments are grounded by our mission to “restore, preserve, and promote”. You can read them at: https://cheat.org/cheat-lake-dam-relicensing-ferc-comments/ Although this comment window has closed, there will be another opportunity for Public Comments in the months to come.

I’ve been thinking a lot about infrastructure lately. Humankind has conquered countless giant construction projects: The pyramids, The Freedom Tower, the Tray Run Viaduct on the B&O Railroad just north of Rowlesburg. The original viaduct, constructed in the 1850s, was a curved, elevated railway consisting of a series of spans supported on arches. At the time of construction, it was the largest viaduct in the world! The Lake Lynn dam was constructed about 70 years later (1920s). And the Albright Powerstation dam about 30 years after that (1950s). Nothing lasts forever, especially without consistent maintenance and care. We can work to fix, replace, and remove infrastructure, and there is a lot of money out there right now to do so. However, we are also missing a big piece of what sustains our society: maintenance and care of our communities. Until our elected officials and agency leaders see that Relationships are also critical community infrastructure, and follow that realization with funds and programs to support and sustain Relationships, everything will eventually fall.

Cue the song lyric from my dream 30th annual Cheat Fest band, Big Richard:

No matter how big

No matter how strong

You can build it but

Someday it’s gonna fall

It’s Gonna Fall, Bonnie Sims, Big Richard

(I know, I know, quite the closer for a newsletter dedicated to bridges. Maybe my entire motivation was for Big Richard to find this column and accept our offer for Cheat Fest 2024!)

Where’s Micah? FOC friend Micah Gerasimovich kayaking High Falls of the Cheat