A new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study could give Eastern Kentucky's whitewater fanatics the result they've been hoping for: an extended season on the infamous Russell Fork.
If that happens, it could create a more robust tourism industry in Elkhorn City, which sits just downstream of the whitewater section of the river in Pike County, though some worry city officials will fail to implement policies that could attract new businesses and younger clients.
Every October, elite paddlers from around the country flock to the Russell Fork for its Class III, IV and V rapids — a maze of boulders, hydraulics and waterfalls that span the 16 miles of river between Haysi, Va., and Elkhorn City.
For years, paddlers like Jason Foley, founder and CEO of Kentucky Whitewater Raft Kayak Rescue, have pushed for a study that would create a more regular and publicized schedule of water releases from Flannagan Dam — a 250-foot-tall rock and clay dam that blocks the flow of the Pound River, which feeds the Russell Fork and, during kayaking season, creates rapids so difficult that only the most skilled paddlers dare to enter.
"Downstream of that dam is world-class whitewater," Foley said. "We’ve been pursuing this (study) for over 20 years now."
Foley led a loose contingent of whitewater enthusiasts who helped persuade the Army Corps to take another look at how and when it releases water from the dam, and whether it could do a better job publicizing those releases.
Last week, with the help of Sen. Mitch McConnell and Kentucky's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, the Army Corps announced it will pursue the study.
Every fall, dam operators release water from the Flannagan so that, come spring, the lake is low enough to hold heavy spring rainfall and mountain runoff.
For kayakers, those fall water releases are what it's all about — the massive increase in water level create treacherous Class V rapids, making the Russell Fork infamous among the kayaking community as one of the most difficult lengths of river in the country.
As it stands now, Flannagan Dam publicizes and schedules releases for four weekends in October, but otherwise lets the water out without informing anyone downstream.
This, in effect, reduces the possible length of the season because kayakers don't know when the river will be at its peak flow.
"There was a ton of water that was being used that was just a waste, essentially," Foley said.
If the study finds that changes can be made to the schedule, the Army Corps will update its water control manual to provide more regular and publicized water releases. Those new policies, if the study stays on schedule, could be implemented by the start of the 2019 season.
"This is really an opportunity to optimize how we’re already operating," said Rebecca Albert, the chief of planning formulation for the U.S. Army Corps' Huntington District.
Steve Ruth, a former tourism liaison for Elkhorn City, said he hopes the study will also look at the dam's summer schedule, when the river is low enough for less-advanced kayakers.
"Any extended season is good for Elkhorn City because that just brings in more people to town," Ruth said. "Folks will come from 50 miles around, nonstop."
But Ruth isn't entirely optimistic. The impact of this study on the economy of Elkhorn City, he said, will depend on how city officials market its many outdoor recreation opportunities.
Elkhorn City has just about everything an outdoor enthusiast could ask for: world-class whitewater; hiking (most notably the Pine Mountain Trail, which runs the ridge of the 120-mile long Pine Mountain and makes up a portion of the planned Great Eastern Trail, a 1,800-mile long hiking trail with ambitions set to rival the more-famous Appalachian Trail); and cycling (Elkhorn City is one of the many stops along the TransAmerica Trail, a coast-to-coast cycling route).
Elkhorn City Mayor Mike Taylor said he hopes an extended season will bring more tourists who spend money at local restaurants and supermarkets.
"I would like to see our businesses full of people," Taylor said. "Our town will welcome anyone who wants to come down here."
Ruth has been critical of the city's current administration for eliminating the tourism liaison position about eight years ago and, Ruth said, for making no effort to promote the city's outdoor recreation potential.
"The leadership in the town shows no interest whatsoever in moving in that direction," Ruth said. "They’ve just been unfriendly to any kind of tourism development."
Taylor disagreed, saying he often works with people planning races, festivals and other events that could attract people from out of town. If any citizen has suggestions on how to boost tourism further, Taylor asked them to contact the city or come to a public meeting.
Foley, the whitewater enthusiast, said the city's reluctance to allow alcohol sales is one thing holding it back. His kayaking clients, for example, have to drive 30 minutes to Pikeville to buy alcohol.
"I think, as far as tourism goes, Elkhorn City is reluctant to embrace modern-day alcohol policies," Foley said. "Opportunity for the area is there. There’s going to be an impact (from this study), its just how well we’re going to use it."