Spring Cleaning at Sutton

USACE–Huntington District
Published Feb. 28, 2014

It’s the same story we all face every spring – you have to clean up the mess winter leaves behind.

The story is the same at the dams operated by the Corps of Engineers. Winter floods wash down quite a bit of drift and debris, which ends up directly behind the dam structure. Some of the drift is man-made trash, but mostly it’s made up of tree limbs and other vegetation.

Only one dam in the Huntington District can pass drift through the structure - Bluestone Dam - so the maintenance staff at the other dams have to take a different approach to the cleanup effort.

At Sutton Dam in Sutton, W.Va., they faced a big job this year because the amount of debris was the most in recent memory.

According to David Eskridge, the Resource Manager at Sutton, "The amount of drift that came into the dam this year was as much as we’ve seen in a long time. Some years we might have two or three floods during the winter, or we might have a flood every two or three years before we have enough drift that we have to deal with it."

To cope with the problem, crews use a large boom (basically a long rope with floats tied on). While the dam is at summer pool level, crews circle the debris with the boom and then tow the debris off to the side of the lake. Eskridge said, "We take a couple of boats on each end of the boom and circle it and motor it over slowly – you can’t do it too quickly or stuff pops out from under the boom."

As the lake level is lowered to winter pool (which allows for more storage when the spring rains hit), the debris is left behind on dry ground along the shore, where crews can use a small bulldozer to push the material into piles for burning.

Maintenance Mechanic Joe Bailes said, "We have a brush hook that fits on our dozer – it’s got a bunch of little hooks and keeps the blade up off the ground. It helps separate the drift from the dirt. If you use straight blades, it’s going to get a lot of dirt in there and it’ll put the fire out."

Before they can burn the debris, they have to remove trash, which can include items ranging from plastic bottles to small propane tanks. But that’s just part of the work involved. Bailes added, "What we’ve found is if you can get in there with chainsaws and cut the drift up into little sections – you’ve got 30- and 40-foot pieces - if you can get in there and cut it up into 10-foot chunks, and then let the air get in there and dry it out and it’ll burn that much quicker."

The crews have to use caution to keep the fires under control. Eskridge said, "We have a permit from the state forester that allows us to burn this. If it was a really windy day it could blow sparks up into the woods and start a fire, but the fire is so far down from the woods it’s not likely that will happen."

In all, it takes about a week to dispose of the debris – just in time for the lake to return to summer pool level. But that’s not the end of the cleanup effort.

Eskridge said, "The Rangers coordinate a ‘Rake the Lake’ effort at the Sutton Marina – it’ll be May 3 this year. Volunteers come in and clean up trash around the lakeshore. We’ve had 70 or 80 volunteers every year who come, bring boats and help bag up the trash. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection takes care of disposing the trash."

Soon, the warm weather will draw crowds to Sutton to enjoy boating, swimming, camping and other recreation opportunities – and it’s likely that few of those visitors realize how much work goes into keeping the lake cleaned up and open for business.