Elkhorn City would gain from more water from dam

Todd Harbour at the Climax rapid on the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy
Todd Harbour at the Climax rapid on the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy Photo provided

As I read that columnist Larry Webster calls Elkhorn City the most beautiful town in the Eastern United States, I am troubled. I believe Elkhorn City certainly has that potential, as it is surrounded by one of the most beautiful forested gorges in North America. However, when I drive through the town I see burned-out houses, empty businesses and closed stores that tried, but failed, to prosper in this stunning location.

Webster states that we could end up with some hideous place like Gatlinburg, but fails to point out that the national park around Gatlinburg is one of the most protected and unchanged wilderness areas in the southeast. The development of Gatlinburg is prohibited from infringing upon any of the national treasure of the Smokies while the locals are able to have many more employment options and the outlying residential areas remain quite peaceful.

Considering unnatural quantities of water from the dam, Webster fails to realize that natural precipitation often matches the flows proposed in the recreational study. The study also took into account the variation of flows required not to impact the natural fishery, which would provide the dual purpose of keeping the river healthy for fishing and providing recreational opportunities.

In fact, it turns out these same recreational flows which have been provided every weekend in October for well over the last decade have had no effect on the state of the fishery rendering this argument already proven invalid.

Of course, considering a couple of dozen kayakers the only beneficiaries of increased releases fails to look at the already-established economic impact such projects have clearly demonstrated in areas such as Fayetteville, W.V., Hartford or Ocoee, Tenn. Recreational releases in these areas did not impact fisheries.

The Elkhorn area will see increased usage by fishermen who could then count on steady water levels and perhaps even see level specific fishing releases like the Gauley River.

Perhaps a larger group of economic contributors will be the families that come on vacation to see the “Grand Canyon Of The East” which the Breaks is sometimes referred to by those who have seen its beauty. These families will want to go out to eat, and perhaps take a whitewater rafting trip down the upper or lower Russell Fork.

It’s conceivable that these families may want to paddle board or just take a swim at Ratliff Hole, which is much better for this purpose with recreational release levels. These same families may want to take a tube ride down from below Carson Island through town and spend time at local shops when they get off the river, like I see families doing in Townsend, Tenn.

It’s not a stretch to think that mountain bikers, hikers, climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts would also venture to Elkhorn City to ride and hike the trails and see the waterfall known as El Horrendo which truly is much more impressive at recreational-release level.

As for the recreational vehicle users, there is no reason for the recreational releases to force them to stop coming as I have seen no trails that run through the river. In fact, they can drive across the bridge in town as they do regularly, and they seem to have no problem accessing the trails from Carson Island and other local access spots.

All of this resistance to anything to try to stimulate the local economy comes at a time when the new road around Elkhorn City is almost done. What will bring economic progress to this beautiful mountain town if no one has reason to take the Elkhorn City exit anymore? The one natural resource that can bring progress to the town without destroying the culture of the people living there is the Gorge and the river itself.

It can be protected while also providing for the sustenance of its native children. Some people want to hide their treasures in the ground for no one to see, but the Breaks is a treasure to be protected but also shared so that others can see how special it truly is.

Todd Harbour is a kayaker and lives in Waddy.