In 1938, Congress had plans for up to five flood control reservoirs for the Kanawha River basin. In addition to Bluestone Dam, in 1941 planning began on Sutton Dam and Lake located on the Elk River 75 miles above Charleston. Construction of this concrete gravity dam, which is 40 feet higher than Bluestone Dam, was completed between 1956 and 1961. Construction of Summersville Dam on the Gauley River took place between 1960 and 1966, providing additional flood control for the area and creating the state's largest lake. Bluestone Dam, Sutton Dam, and Summersville Dam today provide flood protection to West Virginia's heavily industrialized Kanawha Valley, which includes the capital city of Charleston. These three reservoirs control 57% of the total water drainage in the Charleston area, with Bluestone Lake controlling about 44% of this total.
Bluestone Lake has the largest drainage area and flood storage of any dam in West Virginia. Extending over 10 miles up the New River, it is the third largest impoundment in the state. Within twelve years of its completion, Bluestone Dam prevented flood damage equal to as much as twice its construction cost. Bluestone Dam has prevented approximately $1.6 billion in flood damages since it began operation as a flood control structure in 1949.
In addition to providing important flood control benefits to the Kanawha Valley, the reservoir is an important recreational facility for southern West Virginia. Bluestone Dam and Bluestone Lake attract over 1.3 million visitors annually, which brings significant economic benefit to Hinton and the surrounding region. During the summer, the lake's total surface area covers more than 2,040 acres and provides opportunities for recreational activities such as boating, fishing, and water skiing. Moreover, the area surrounding the lake is a popular destination for picnics, hunting, biking, and camping.
Federal lands around Bluestone Lake are designated as the Bluestone Lake Wildlife Management Area. This includes 17,632 acres of land, much of which has been leased to the State of West Virginia for forest, fish, and wildlife conservation. The Bluestone Lake Wildlife Management Area is one of the most popular public hunting and fishing areas in the state, and features wild turkey, whitetail deer, and a variety of small game and fish. The area includes excellent recreational facilities, including seven campgrounds and a rustic cabin and barn area. A large public hunting area has also been reserved at the upper end of the lake.
While the Huntington District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the operation of the dam and adjacent parking areas, scenic overlook, and picnic area, the State of West Virginia, under a licensing agreement with the federal government, provides fish, wildlife, and forest management of the lands around the lake. The State of West Virginia has developed a portion of the reservoir lands and adjacent state-owned lands as Bluestone State Park and Pipestem State Park. The state parks together contain 50 cabins, 169 tent/trailer campsites, 143 lodge rooms, boat rentals, hiking trails, a handicapped accessible fishing pier, and numerous amenities. A portion of the lake and associated lands in Virginia are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in cooperation with state law enforcement and conservation agencies in Virginia.
In 1997, Bluestone Dam was evaluated to determine its potential eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. Findings indicated that Bluestone Dam is historically significant under National Register Criterion A, which recognizes resources that are associated with important events in American history, or with important patterns and trends in American history. Resources eligible for the National Register under Criterion A can be historically significant at the local, state, or national level. Bluestone Dam is historically significant for its associations with the landmark Supreme Court case that strengthened the federal government's ability to develop water resources. The dam was also cited as significant for its associations with the federal flood control program of the early to mid-twentieth century, which resulted in the establishment of large reservoirs in many parts of the United States. These reservoirs have prevented billions of dollars in flood damage to cities and towns of all sizes. Use of Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds for the project and the positive local economic impact of Bluestone Lake and the Bluestone Wildlife Management area were also mentioned as themes that contribute to the dam's historic significance.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded the 1997 National Register eligibility assessment because of long-range plans to alter Bluestone Dam. One severe problem in the dam's operation is the buildup of debris and other trash in Bluestone Lake during high water. At times, up to twenty acres of flood debris can back up behind the dam, ranging from driftwood to old tires, bottles, cans, abandoned refrigerators and other appliances. Removal of these items is time-consuming, and if these materials pass through the dam during low water conditions, they can become snagged in scenic areas below Bluestone Dam.
This problem and its effect on the natural and scenic resources below Bluestone Dam have been an area of concern to the Corps of Engineers. Plans are currently in place to construct a drift release tower at the dam. This facility would consist of a large opening in the dam that could be manipulated to pass driftwood and other debris through the dam during high water, so that the material will wash down the New River and out of the area. Some larger pieces of debris such as tires and appliances may be removed before they pass through the drift release tower. The estimated project cost is $9.2 million, and completion is expected in 2003. Construction of the drift release tower is part of a comprehensive effort to remove solid waste from the New River, one of the top whitewater rafting destinations in the eastern United States.