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.