It's a fall morning just below West Virginia's Summersville Dam, and a torrent of whitewater thunders through threemassive penstock valves, spraying mist 60 feet into the air. For the boaters launching from the north bank, this display of brute hydraulic force is a familiar spectacle: Most weekends during September and October, dam releases transform the Upper Gauley River into a 12-mile obstacle course of Class V rapids and SUV-size boulders. One of the most dramatic sections is the put-in near Summersville. "I can't think of a bigger rush," says David Arnold, president of Class VI River Runners, a local outfitter, "than the first five minutes on the Gauley."
Unfortunately, by next September this predictable but heart-pounding excitement will be a thing of the past, thanks to a plan to couple the 35-year-old dam with a $53 million hydroelectric plant. A power-generating scheme licensed to the town of Summersville by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the project will divert water through a pipe that releases beneath the river's surface, turning the put-in into a tranquil wading pool. While the project will have no impact downstream, boating advocates, bemoaning the loss of one of the gnarliest whitewater scenes east of the Mississippi, fear the deal could be a harbinger of worse changes to come.
Since 1986, the FERC has been forced to give "equal consideration" to energy conservation, fish and wildlife protection, and recreation—an arrangementthat is the cornerstone of the country's best dam-release whitewater runs, such as the Nantahala River Gorge in North Carolina. But over the next 15 years, some 275 dams in the United States will be eligible for relicensing, and boaters fear that profit-minded utility firms will use the opportunity to renegotiate their costly dam-release requirements. "The Gauley is just the tip of the iceberg,"predicts David Brown, executive director of the whitewater trade association America Outdoors. Although no one can predict what will come next, this much is certain: If you want to be among the last to experience one of America's most spectacular whitewater put-ins, you'd better do it this fall.