by Bill Mardis
Lake Cumberland is undergoing a very slow drawdown this week to keep the lake below the maximum 705 feet above sea level allowed until permission is given for normal operation, according to Don B. Getty, manager of the Wolf Creek Dam Rehabilitation Project.
Getty said the lake level reached 705.7 late last week. As of Tuesday morning the level was 702.98 and water releases through the dam’s six generating units ranged over 24 hours from zero to 21,560 cubit feet per second.
Wolf Creek Dam, declared in high risk of failure in 2005 by a panel of experts, underwent a complete rehabilitation during the past seven years. The lake level, beginning in January 2007, was kept about 40 feet below normal for six years for safety and to facilitate repair work at the dam.
After a protective concrete barrier wall, a minimum of 2 feet thick, 4,000 feet long and 275 feet deep, was inserted in the earthen section of the dam to stop uncontrolled seepage the lake was allowed to rise 25 feet during the vacation season last summer. The 705-foot level raised the water to surround Pulaski County Park, make usable the boat-launching ramp at Fishing Creek Recreation Area and reach the causeway at General Burnside Island State Park, making the island state park an island again. The level was dropped last fall to about 690 feet to allow clean-up work on the face of the dam.
Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers never said the lake would be full this coming summer, tourism interests in the Lake Cumberland area assumed it would and promoted “Lake Cumberland is back” at boat shows in the North. Normal operation is a pool stage of 723 feet (tree line).
An unexpected shocker came January 29 when the Corps announced that Duskytail Darters, an endangered species of minnows, had been discovered in a five-mile stretch of Big South Fork River that flows into headwaters of the lake. Presence of the Darters would not allow the lake to return to normal operation until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service figured out a way to save the Darters. The announcement said the lake would reach 705 feet, the same as last summer.
Seems the Darters, a slow-swimming minnow, moved into a five- mile stretch of the Big South Fork during the seven years the lake was low. The little fish survive in fast-flowing water over a boulder-strewn river bed. If the lake were to rise to normal the deep, still water would inundate the new habitat of the Darters and possibly kill the endangered minnows.
The surprise announcement that the lake would not return to normal this summer upset a bunch of folks. The controversy reached the halls of Congress and powerful lawmakers like Hal Rogers, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul and Lamar Alexander put pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service to hasten a solution for the endangered Darters.
Progress is being made. Getty said Tuesday the Corps and Wildlife Service are working every day on a solution. Noting the close collaboration between the Corps’ division office in Cincinnati and the Wildlife Service, Getty expressed surprise at the rapid movement toward a solution.
Getty said earlier and repeated Tuesday: “I can’t give you a probability, but I can say there is a ‘definite possibility’ the go-ahead will be given for the lake to return to normal operation this summer.” Green light for normal operation will be given by Brigadier General Margaret W. Burcham, commander of the Great Lakes & Ohio River Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.