Lake Cumberland is rising toward a current target of 705 feet above sea level, and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ official says there is a “definite possibility” the lake can return to normal operation this summer.
“I can’t tell you the ‘probability’ but I can tell you there is a ‘definite possibility’ the lake can return to normal operation by this summer,” said Don B. Getty, manager of Wolf Creek Dam Rehabilitation Project. “Even with normal operation, whether the lake reaches pool stage (tree line) by vacation time depends on Mother Nature; the amount of rainfall,” Getty said.
“The quicker we get a go-ahead, the better the chances for a full lake,” Getty continued. “The closer to summer, the less rainfall,” he predicted.
Heavy rains in the Cumberland River Basin currently are boosting the lake level.
“Check the level ... it’s 699.7,” Getty said gleefully Tuesday afternoon. This is just slightly more than 5 feet below the current target level where the lake was last summer. The lake was allowed to rise 20-25 feet last summer after repairs at Wolf Creek Dam were basically completed in March.
Getty explained that the Corps finished the lower band of riprap first (on the face of the dam) so the lake level could start rising. The rise toward 705 feet started February 14, he said. There are about two more weeks of riprap work higher up on the dam.
Recent discovery of federally endangered Duskytail Darters in headwaters of the lake resulted in an announcement by the Corps January 29 that the lake would be held at the 705-foot level throughout the 2014 vacation season to protect the minnows.
The announcement created a firestorm among tourism interests that were convinced the lake would return to normal this summer after seven years of low levels to repair Wolf Creek Dam. The controversy reached the halls of Congress where Daniel M. Ashe, director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reportedly promised a Kentucky-Tennessee congressional delegation he would cut preparation time for a Biological Opinion on the fate of the Duskytail Darters to 60 days from a law-allowed 135 days from receipt of a Biological Assessment from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Assessment was presented to the Wildlife Service on February 7.
Getty, calling discussions with the Wildlife Service a “Formal Consultations” said the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service are working very closely together to solve the endangered minnow problem. “The process is going very well with both agencies,” he said.
Lee Andrews, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kentucky Field Office, told the Commonwealth Journal Tuesday morning that the Biological Opinion on what to do with the endangered Darters is in the process of being written. He suggested the solution may be to take the endangered minnows out of a newly established habitat in the Big South Fork River that empties into Lake Cumberland.
The federally endangered Darters were found in a five-mile stretch of the Big South Fork River that returned to its natural state after Lake Cumberland was lowered in January 2007 to repair Wolf Creek Dam. Now, environmentalists fear the lake, when returned to normal operation, will inundate the new habitat of the Darters and kill the minnows. The endangered fish reportedly are slow swimmers and would be unable to make it downriver to an acceptable habitat after the lake rises. Duskytail Darters live in fast-flowing water over boulder-strewn river beds.
Getty indicated it would be a “ ... very short time” after the “Formal Consultation” is done before a decision is made about the dam. The green light will be given by Brigadier General Margaret W. Burcham, commander and Division engineer of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the Corps. Her decision apparently will be based on final assessments of the $594 million Wolf Creek Dam Rehabilitation Project as well as the decision about the Duskytail Darters.