Commonwealth Journal

February 12, 2014

Lawmakers angle with U.S. Fish & Wildlife to expedite darter study

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Washington, D.C. —

The director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed to cut in more than half the time his agency has to write a Biological Opinion on how to protect federally endangered duskytail darters and get the issue out of the way of normal operation levels for Lake Cumberland.
Daniel M. Ashe met Tuesday in Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership office in Washington, D.C. with Senators McConnell and Rand Paul, both of Kentucky, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Congressman Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, and Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville. They discussed presence of duskytail darters in the Big South Fork River that flows into Lake Cumberland and the minnow’s effects on the lake level.
The Corps announced January 29 that Lake Cumberland will be at the 705-feet level this summer, same as last summer, and 18 feet below pool stage. The reason is to protect the duskytail darter, a species on the Endangered Species List. Apparently the 2 1/2-inch-long minnows moved into a five-mile stretch of the Big South Fork River while the lake was low. Now, environmentalist say raising the lake level might drown the slow-swimming minnows that like flowing water and rocky riffles.
Robert Steurer, McConnell’s press secretary, said out of the meeting Tuesday came a commitment from Ashe for a 60-day turnaround in preparing a Biological Opinion in response to a Biological Assessment prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Biological Assessment was presented Friday to the Kentucky Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
 Lee Andrews, field supervisor for the Kentucky office, said earlier the Service has 135 days (see related story) to complete consultations and write the Biological Opinion. The outcome of that formal consultation process will determine the way forward, the Corps said.
Steurer also quoted Ashe as saying he would talk to the regional office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if the Biological Opinion could be implemented faster to accommodate the upcoming fishing tournament season this March and April.
The congressional delegation also discussed with Ashe about when the duskytail darter issue will be resolved and Lake Cumberland can return to normal levels. Apparently Ashe didn’t have an answer to this one, but promised the congressmen he would work with the regional agency and get back with them.
Don B. Getty, manager of the $594 million Wolf Creek Dam Rehabilitation Project, told the Commonwealth Journal last week that, if not delayed by high lake levels, placement of riprap on the face of the dam should be completed by the end of February and the lake can soon rise to 705 feet above sea level, the same as last summer.
Last summer’s level doesn’t make tourism interests in the Lake Cumberland Area very happy. Problems at Wolf Creek Dam have kept the lake about 40 feet below normal level since 2007. Dam repairs were essentially completed last March and the lake last summer was raised 25 feet during the vacation season. 
Folks around here thought the lake would return to normal operation this summer. Normal operation is a pool stage of 723 feet during the vacation season.
Brigadier General Margaret W. Burcham, commander and Division engineer of the Corps’ Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, will make the final decision when Lake Cumberland will return to normal operation.