Burnshire Hydroelectric Dam dealing with historically low water flow levels

Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 6:02 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 21, 2023 at 6:15 PM EDT
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WOODSTOCK, Va. (WHSV) - The Burnshire Dam in Woodstock has been dealing with some historic issues as the Shenandoah Valley continues to go through a drought. The hydroelectric dam generates power from the Shenandoah River but in the last month, low water levels have raised significant challenges in maintaining its power output.

“We have to shut down hydroelectric generation for the most part because we have to maintain water flow downstream for the downstream water users and there’s simply not enough water to generate power,” said Lee Harvey, owner and operator of Burnshire HydroElectric.

Harvey said that early in September the Shenandoah River had stopped going over the top of the dam because of how low water levels were. This created a dead pool with no water flowing downstream.

“It lasted for about 10 days and then we got a couple rain storms and we had some afternoon rainstorms that helped augment but at one point the dead pool behind the dam was minus one foot. So we lost a foot of water behind the dam and nobody around here has ever seen that happen,” said Harvey.

Harvey said that after looking back through hydrographs in the area the rate of water discharge per second in the last few weeks reached the lowest point since electronic measuring has taken place on the river.

“When it dropped below the dam what we did was we set all of our gates to a certain open level that would not close under any circumstances to ensure that we maintained flow around the dam at all times 24/7,” said Harvey.

Harvey said the inability to generate enough power to sell has cost his business between $15,000-$20,000 over the last two months.

“This is also the time that power pays the most. Whenever it’s hot outside that’s when the power company pays the most for power so it’s kind of a double whammy in that we not only can’t generate any power but we also can’t generate any power during the high times when it pays the most money,” he said.

A big concern for Harvey is that he feels there has been a lack of coordination in the Valley when it comes to water conservation efforts during the drought.

“You have people that are extracting the water for agricultural use or for the towns and then you have people that are putting water back in, and then you have people that actually have an asset available like the dams along the river that can release water. There is nobody that is coordinating any of these efforts such as release of water or coordinating between the towns to restrict water,” he said. “There needs to be some kind of coordinated effort to use the resource we have at hand, to increase storage or something else, even to manage water usage within the valley or this is going to become a bad situation.”

Harvey worries about what the long-term consequences of dry conditions and a lack of coordination could be.

“As the valley grows in population, as industry moves in and there’s more demand on water from the river this is going to happen again and again. We simply can’t run out of water for two to three days at a time, it’s not like losing power at your house,” he said.