Freeing Streams of Debris Might Help Control Flooding in Future

April 24, 2007

When streams and rivers throughout West Virginia surged over their banks last week, causing millions of dollars of damage, Garrett Fork in Logan County was virtually alone in not flooding.

That’s no anomaly: county officials say Garrett Fork is the one stream in Logan where a process called stream restoration was recently done.

Now Logan officials want to use the process throughout the county, and state officials — including Gov. Joe Manchin — say that might be the way to spare the state from some of the destruction brought by frequent floods.

But some are worried that environmental regulations about how debris and blockages can be removed from streams will slow the cleanup process.

“The hardest thing for us to do is get into a stream and clean up debris after a flood,” Logan County Commission President Art Kirkendoll said last week, just as cleanup efforts were starting. “The feds are going to have to figure out a way for counties and states to get into their own streams.”

A day after the rain stopped, Logan was still full of examples illustrating Kirkendoll’s concerns about “choke points” where rivers and streams can’t flow freely. Piles of wood and mud were wedged under bridges, river banks looked as though they had been covered in confetti because of all the garbage and a three-span bridge over the Guyandotte River was down to one span, the other two having been clogged with silt and debris.

Kirkendoll and emergency officials say the only way to remove much of those blockages is with heavy machinery, but they are restricted in doing so. If machinery is used in removing debris from streams, for example, that machinery has to remain on the bank, and can’t touch the water without Army Corps of Engineers approval, according to Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Jessica Greathouse.

Counties are also barred from dredging streams — removing large amounts of silt to deepen the channel, making the water flow faster.

“It might look like a quick fix because it provides the water a wider, deeper channel to move faster in,” she said. But those living downstream of the dredging often suffer from it, because it makes the streams fill up faster during heavy rains.

The flooding that began April 14 forced hundreds from their homes while damaging roads, bridges, homes and businesses. State Homeland Security Director Jimmy Gianato estimates the final cost of the flooding will top $6 million.

Manchin — who applied last week for a federal disaster declaration in flooded areas of the state — considers stream restoration an important way to prevent major floods in the future, according to spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg.

However, Ramsburg said, Manchin doesn’t think there’s a need to re-examine current regulations governing what counties and municipalities can do.

“Within the existing regulations, there’s enough room to make stream restoration viable,” she said.

Any dredging or stream restoration apart from some emergencies require a permit obtained through the Army Corps of Engineers. Mike Worley, chief of the corp’s Huntington Division planning branch, said two types of permit exist for stream restoration, including an expedited permit available much quicker than the standard 60 to 90 day process.

“There’s a misconception out there that people can’t do anything to the streams,” he said. “That’s not true.”

Work done outside a stream can be permitted relatively quickly, he said. A longer permitting process is used if workers and equipment will actually be in the stream itself.

“You can’t just go in and take a shot at anything you want to do,” he said. “There needs to be a plan so you don’t adversely affect anyone else when fixing your problem.”

The corps is looking at ways to lessen the effects of future floods in southern West Virginia, including planning a $25 million channel modification to Island Creek, which Kirkendoll said will eliminate a significant amount of the county’s flood problems.

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