Unpacking Justice's Lake Building Proposal

Jan 14, 2019

1/15/19 9:55 a.m. -- This story was updated with a statement from the WVDEP.

In his State of the State address to the West Virginia Legislature last week, Gov. Jim Justice laid out a series of policy proposals, including one to develop more lakes across West Virginia.

“It’s something that we need so badly within West Virginia, it's unbelievable,” Justice said. “We need to develop multiple lakes within West Virginia, multiple lakes that can give us hydroelectric power -- which maybe we don't need, but at the same time, they can give us flood control.”

Water policy watchers and experts said the proposal seemed to come out of the blue, and while it raised important questions about the state’s flood-control preparedness, it also left many questions unanswered.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said the plan is still in development.

West Virginia: Lake Builders

The majority of the more than 120 lakes and ponds in West Virginia are man-made. The 10 largest lakes in the state are dammed impoundments built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Brian Maka, a public affairs officer for the Army Corps Huntington District, said after the 1937 flood caused widespread damage along the Ohio River, Congress authorized the agency to develop ways to reduce future flood damage. That included building floodwalls around many cities and the construction and maintenance of 35 flood-control dams in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.

Constructing dams and their subsequent lakes are massive infrastructure undertakings, which can have major impacts on the landscape, environment and communities in the region.

In the 1940s, about 40 families in the Village of Lilly were pushed off their land along the Bluestone River in Summers County. Many of these families had lived there for more than 200 years. 

Similarly, some residents in Lewis County, although compensated for their homes, were forced to leave when the Corps constructed Stonewall Jackson Lake. Completed in 1990, it is now used for boating and fishing recreation. It also provides flood control for areas downriver of the West Fork River.

“Building lakes and reservoirs in West Virginia is not a bad idea, but it depends on the side of the table that you're on,” said Jason Hubbart, director of West Virginia University’s Institute for Water Security and Science.

He said being proactive about flood control is an important issue in West Virginia that will only grow in importance given that precipitation rates are increasing. Climate change is expected to further increase rainfall rates and extreme precipitation events in West Virginia.

“There's plenty of studies that show the benefit of reservoirs, and these types of facilities for attenuating or mitigating flood waves and extreme events,” Hubbart said.

He adds, building reservoirs isn’t the only option for flood control, and developing a new lake, especially a large one, comes with costs beyond just large amount of money involved, including impacts to the state’s rivers and ecosystems.

“One can make equal argument that those rivers those pristine and beautiful river systems create recreation in and of themselves, too,” he said. “So, it's a really, really complicated topic, really politically-charged topic.”

Red Tape

In the past, much of the lake building done across West Virginia and the country has fallen on the federal government.

In an email, Maka, with the Army Corps Huntington District, said that many elements go into determining the best location for a dam, and construction can take several years. If a hydroelectric plant is installed, that adds another layer of federal permitting.

“To do this, there are a lot of experts and agencies that have to be involved in the evaluation and permitting process,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

Justice called on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to spearhead his lake development proposal. Rosser said it’s unclear why the governor would task an environmental permitting agency with this effort.

“That’s just not typical for an environmental permitting agency to be the one to shepherd the whole process,” she said.

In addition to being a time-consuming effort, developing one or multiple new lakes would also be costly.

The dam that was built to create the largest lake in the state, Summersville Lake, cost the Corps nearly $48 million in the 1960s, which adjusted for inflation is about $373 million today.

Justice said he wants DEP to secure money from a federal infrastructure package, which the White House has yet to propose.

In an emailed statement, DEP spokesman Jake Glance said following the State of the State, DEP Secretary Austin Caperton "met with top staff to begin outlining the steps necessary to carry out the Governor’s plan as it relates to creating lakes and developing recreational opportunities in West Virginia."

“WVDEP has the staff and data to perform the kind of detailed analysis that is required to determine the areas of the state that are viable candidates for this type of project,” Caperton said. “WVDEP welcomes the opportunity to provide the resources in support of the Governor’s vision of increased tourism and recreational lake development in West Virginia.”

Building an ‘Ocean’?

In Justice’s pitch to the state Legislature, he said developing new lakes could boost tourism.

“Do you know if you step back and think about it, four of the most beautiful seasons in the world, the most incredible people on the planet, the most unbelievable natural resources, and we're located within 600 miles of two-thirds of the people in the country,” he said. “The only thing we don't have is an ocean.”

John McCoy covers the outdoors for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. When he heard Justice’s proposal, he immediately thought back to a 2017 bill introduced by two southern West Virginia lawmakers.

It called for the creation of a 50,000-acre lake in the coalfields akin to the 20,600-acre Smith Mountain Lake, near Roanoke, Virginia, which has turned the area into a tourism mecca.

To put this idea into perspective, West Virginia’s largest lake, Summersville, is a modest 2,700 acres.

“I don't know if it's physically possible, because to build a lake that big, just looking at a topographic map of the southern part of West Virginia, we don't have that ridge and valley province down there,” McCoy said.

McCoy wrote a column about the proposal asking some tough questions, including where a mega-lake could be built that wouldn’t displace thousands of people. In the southern part of the state, valleys are narrow and coal mines dot the subsurface like honeycomb.

McCoy stresses he isn’t an engineer, just a southern West Virginia native and reporter who has lived here a long time, but he struggles to see how at least that part of the state could support a mega-lake.

“I can't imagine the costs just in real estate and human capital,” he said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of the audio story incorrectly stated that the last lake built in West Virginia was Summersville Lake. The last lake constructed was Stonewall Jackson Lake.