Commonwealth Journal

December 23, 2013

2013: A milestone year for Wolf Creek Dam

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Jamestown —

December 2013—this month – is a significant milestone in the history of Wolf Creek Dam. 
Technically, end of this year is the close of Treviicos-Soletanche JV’s $594 million contract to repair the mile-long structure that impounds Lake Cumberland. It also may signal a light at the end of the tunnel for the longest continuous coverage of any news event in the history of this newspaper.
The eight years since the Corps announced Wolf Creek Dam was in high risk of failure seem an eternity. The revelation was made locally at The Center for Rural Development in mid-August 2005.
That’s been 100 months; about 3,000 days, and more than 4.3 million minutes ago! The economic heartbeat of Lake Cumberland Country during these trillions of unsettling seconds has often skipped a beat at a lake level lower than normal. A possible breach of the dam gave communities along the Cumberland River form Burkesville to Nashville a case of the jitters.
  The best face possible was put on the situation, but an inaccurate perception of a “dry lake” perpetrated by intense media coverage shooed hundreds of Ohio Navy admirals to other watery destinations.
Initially, end of the rehabilitation was scheduled last December. However, a porous spot in the dam at the juncture of the concrete and earthen sections, dubbed Critical Area 1, delayed the project a full year. While drilling into the unstable area, instrumentation inside the dam showed material movement deep in the structure. 
The shifting was so alarming communities below the dam were notified. It took several months to figure out how to insert the concrete wall in the critical spot without triggering a breach. 
Rehabilitation of the leaky dam apparently is complete. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.
During the second week of this month a panel of experts, called a Vertical Team, held a two-day final review of the rehabilitation project and took a field trip to the dam. Out of the meeting of upper management and technical personnel from inside and outside the Corps will come a recommendation to Brigadier General Margaret W. Burcham, commander of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the Corps. 
Burcham will make a final decision on whether Lake Cumberland will return to normal operation in time for next summer’s vacation season. Don B. Getty, manager of the rehabilitation project, cautions that giving the go-head is a slow process. He said it could be up to two months before she makes her decision.
Nothing official, but a report out of the final safety review sounds optimistic. “We’re very pleased. It went as expected. There were no unexpected surprises,” commented Getty.
Bad news sells newspapers, so media critics say, and sadly, in some cases it’s true. Good news, as well, rolls hot off the presses.
More than 800 stories and photographs of the lake situation and progress on rehabilitation of Wolf Creek Dam have been published in the Commonwealth Journal during the past eight years. 
This news coverage about troubled Wolf Creek Dam is the most frequent and intense of any subject in the nearly 100-year existence of this newspaper and its predecessors. Since The Commonwealth and Somerset Journal, both weeklies, merged January 3, 1966 into the daily Commonwealth Journal, stories about the unstable dam have appeared on front pages of the Somerset daily more than any other subject. A first-place award from the Kentucky Press Association was presented for coverage of the near breach in the dam during late 1968, a situation that required a decade to make temporary repairs.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers, builder and keeper of Wolf Creek Dam, has, for the most part, been completely frank about problems at the dam. Time and time again, the Corps escorted reporters from Kentucky and Tennessee to the dam site, even taking media personnel into the bowels of the mile-long structure in a “Show and Tell” about the repair process. Corps engineers promptly answered telephone calls from the media, candidly talking about the good and bad.
A permanent concrete barrier wall, 4,000 feet long, 275 feet deep and at least 2 feet thick, has been inserted into the earthen section of the dam to stop uncontrolled seepage. The barrier wall was completed in March.
Other mop-up work at the dam site includes narrowing the work platform, created to accommodate heavy equipment, from 75 feet wide to a permanent passages 30 feet wide, and redesigning the intersection with U.S. 127 and the road leading below the dam. An effort has been made this fall and winter to keep the lake at 690 feet above sea level to facilitate the work platform modification.
Lake Cumberland is the economic engine that keeps Pulaski and surrounding counties humming. The largest and deepest lake east of the Mississippi River generated a tourist industry that immediately banished gloom and doom after closing of Southern Railways’ Ferguson Shops, ending employment for 600 well-paid workers.
Lake Cumberland is, has been and always will be a magnet. Sixty-three years ago—late December 1950—the gates were closed at Wolf Creek Dam to impound the 101-mile-long body of water. But, as always, the lake, averaging 90 feet deep, has a history of surprises.
“It was supposed to take two years lake to fill,” recalls former Burnside Mayor James W. “Jim” Brooks.
“But we had a flood ... and the bridges weren’t done,” said Brooks. A ferry was put in operation to take people to Ky. 90 and he recalls cars lined up and waiting more than two hours to be ferried across the lake.
“It was scary ... the water got choppy. “The ferry carried school buses ... the children would scream,” Brooks recalls.
Back to the future, if Commander Burcham gives the go-ahead for Lake Cumberland to return to normal operation, the screams you’ll hear will be excited sounds from a tourist industry that has suffered so long.
 The happiest note: “Come on in. The water is fine!”