RIDGELEY, W.Va. — Del. Gary Howell said concerns exist among West Virginia officials over a proposal to removal the dam beneath the Blue Bridge that links Ridgeley, West Virginia, and Cumberland.
“I would say that removing the dam takes away more opportunities than it creates,” said Howell, a Republican who represents Mineral County.
Howell elaborated Thursday evening on the state’s stance after Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced his opposition to a proposal to remove the dam as part of a project to build a river park at the location.
A group of elected officials, business owners and agency leaders in Allegany County have been in support of constructing the river park along the North Branch of the Potomac River behind Canal Place. The park would include a moderate whitewater course, canoe and kayak docks, trails and a viewing area.
The construction of the dam in 1954 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created three miles of placid slack water stretching upstream from behind the dam. Although not heavily used, the slack water creates favorable conditions for kayaking and canoeing as well as fishing.
“My understanding is there have been several people, companies, have expressed interest in the slack water for a variety of stuff, including different types of boating activities,” said Howell. “I think it is the only slack water on the North Branch other than Jennings Randolph Lake.”
Although subject to challenge, it is generally believed that current law stipulates that Maryland owns the riverbed beneath the Potomac and some portion of the embankment on the West Virginia side.
“It’s my understanding it is (up to) the normal high-water mark (on the West Virginia side river bank),” said Howell. “If we were in a drought situation — and they weren’t releasing water from the dam — if you were standing on the West Virginia side that was dry, you would be technically be in Maryland.
“But if the river was above its normal flow the water would actually be in West Virginia. So whatever the average flow would be, whatever that water level would be, so much of that water would be in West Virginia.
Howell said the closing of the Verso paper mill in Luke in 2019 has positively impacted the river.
“With Verso now gone obviously the river is much cleaner than it was,” he said. “So if the city of Carpendale wanted to pull water out from behind that dam, as long as they pulled it from above the normal high-water mark, which would be underwater because the dam is there, they wouldn’t need permission from Maryland because that would be in West Virginia.
“From a personal standpoint, if my constituents want to use that slack water then that is what I’m going to fight for, especially if it brings jobs to West Virginia,” said Howell.
Howell was ask about the benefits of a river park, which also recommends docks and trails for the West Virginia side. Proponents of the river park believe it will create opportunities on that side for shops, restaurants and expedition outfitters.
“On the West Virginia side, we have the opportunity either way,” he said. “But, if the dam is removed, you’ve removed one of our opportunities. Because you can do whitewater below the dam. You can do trails whether the dam is there or not. So I would say removing the dam takes away more opportunities than it creates.”