Commonwealth Journal

May 7, 2014

A joyous celebration for Lake Cumberland

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3 p.m. Friday will celebrate the return of Lake Cumberland as the third largest body of water east of the Mississippi River and the ninth biggest reservoir in America.
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who snubbed the dastardly duskytail darter to get Lake Cumberland back to normal this season, will be on hand for the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce event at Lee’s Ford Resort Marina. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is invited but his presence is not confirmed.
McConnell is expected to make a short talk, no doubt relating his experiences with a rare minnow that almost suffocated the economy of a 10-county region. Later, at 7 p.m., “Caught Red Handed” with Kevin Dalton will be featured as part of the Harbor Deck Concert Series. Harbor Deck is a vantage point with a magnificent view of Lake Cumberland.
The celebratory moments are at a place that suffered during seven summers with low water levels and a perception-worse-than-reality scenario that the lake was dry. J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee’s Ford Resort and Marina, welcomes with open arms a normal water level. 
“Oh man! It’s time to celebrate! It has been eight long years. There’s no way to describe the feeling. My employees and I ... we smile when we come down the hill. The lake is so beautiful,” gushed a happy Hamilton.
Wolf Creek Dam, built atop a porous limestone base, has had a seepage problem since the gates were closed in December 1950 to impound Lake Cumberland. The dam almost broke in 1968 when two large sinkholes developed near the electrical grid below the dam and muddy water was observed in the tailrace. 
The crisis was temporarily averted by pumping grout (liquid concrete) in the dam and inserting a too-short, not-deep-enough concrete wall in the earthen section. 
The dam continued to leak and eventually seepage reached an uncontrollable state. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started managing the lake level after a group of outside experts in 2005 declared Wolf Creek Dam in high risk of failure.
Corps brass gathered at The Center for Rural Development in August 2005 to announce a complete rehabilitation of the dam was necessary. In January 2007, the lake was quickly lowered more than 40 feet to ease pressure on the mile-long structure and prevent a possible breach that could produce devastating flooding along the Cumberland River downstream to Nashville.
Shoring up the leaky dam was a project of a scope never before done anywhere in the world. The $594 million project included a concrete barrier wall 4,000 feet long, 275 feet deep and at least 2 feet thick. Enough concrete was put in the dam to build a sidewalk 5 feet wide from the dam site to Washington, D.C.
The last pile was poured in March 2013. The barrier was complete and the lake was allowed to rise about 20 feet last summer.
Although the Corps never said so, tourism interests were confident the lake would return to normal levels during Summer 2014. Then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered the federally endangered duskytail darter had moved downstream in the Big South Fork River while the lake was low. To allow normal levels to return might destroy newly claimed habitat for the 2 1/2-inch-long minnows, environmentalist said.
So, reacting to federal law, the Corps announced early this year that Lake Cumberland would be kept this coming summer at 705 feet above sea level, the same as Summer 2013, to protect the duskytail darter.
The announcement created a hullabaloo. Cries of foul by the tourism interests reached the Halls of Congress.
That’s where Senator McConnell came in. He and Congressman Hal Rogers and Senator Rand Paul, all of Kentucky, and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee met in McConnell’s office in Washington with brass from the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service.
In bureaucratic speak, it was a productive session. From a distance, it seems somebody said “Get that minnow out of our hair.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to seine the minnows and take the catch to Wolf Creek Dam National Fish Hatchery for safekeeplng and possible propagation.
 On March 25, Lake Cumberland started to rise, reaching and exceeding pool stage. And thus, Friday’s celebration at Lee’s Ford Resort Marina.
“It’s time to celebrate!” Hamilton repeated.