Commonwealth Journal

March 26, 2014

Lake Cumberland gets the OK to be back at normal levels

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

After seven long years of bare banks and dry coves, the level of Lake Cumberland is rising. The heartbeat of a 10-county area is extending its watery arms along more than 1,200 miles of forested shoreline, reaching 101 miles from west of Jamestown through Pulaski County to near Corbin.
That’s now. Immediately. The water’s rise is under way. Lack of rainfall is the only thing to keep Lake Cumberland from reaching the tree line by the upcoming vacation season.
“Not only is there light at the end of the tunnel but this is sunshine on the economy of the Lake Cumberland region,” said Congressman Hal Rogers, first to tell the Commonwealth Journal shortly after noon yesterday that Lake Cumberland is immediately returning to normal operation. Rogers’ announcement was confirmed moments later in a news release from the Nashville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the past few months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday finalized the Biological Opinion that clears the way for the Corps to immediately resume normal operations at Lake Cumberland,” the Corps said in a prepared statement.
 During meetings Monday with Sally Jewell. secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Corps officials, Rogers said he was told that by May 15, with sufficient rainfall, the lake level could be at pool stage –– 723 feet above sea level at the tree line.
  “In a joint statement, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Congressmen Rogers and Ed Whitfield called the announcement “ ... great news for the thousands of people who rely on the lake for recreation and tourism, and to local communities, businesses and individuals whose livelihoods are being impacted because of lower water levels.”
  “We appreciate the Secretary of the Interior making an expedited, 45-day decision for their Biological Opinion which prompted the Corps to sign the order (Monday) allowing water levels to be restored to 723 feet –– levels adequate to support robust tourism in 2014,” said the congressional group.
 With formal consultation complete, Brig. Gen. Margaret Burcham, commanding general, Great Lakes and Ohio River Division, made the decision yesterday to allow Lake Cumberland to rise to a target elevation of 723 feet this summer, which is the normal elevation at the beginning of the recreational season. The Corps and staff from the Wildlife Service’s Kentucky Field Office implemented an expedited review and analysis process to complete the Biological Opinion in less than 45 days. The normal consultation process allows up to 135 days. 
  “As a result of the Biological Opinion and Brig. Gen. Burcham’s decision to increase the pool elevation, we will begin immediately to capture water in Lake Cumberland,” said Lt. Col. John Hudson, commander of the Corps’ Nashville District. “Reaching our target peak elevation of 723 feet this year will be dependent on the amount and timing of rainfall.” The lake at noon yesterday was 706.35 feet above sea level, a little more than a foot above the target level last summer. 
 Repairs to Wolf Creek Dam were basically completed in March 2013 and the lake was allowed to rise about 25 feet last summer. It had been kept about 40 feet below normal since January 2007 to facilitate repairs at Wolf Creek Dam, declared in high risk of failure in 2005.
  Completion of the Biological Opinion was the final piece of information required to make a decision about the Lake Cumberland pool level. The dam safety remedial measures had previously been reviewed by Corps dam safety professionals, who recommended returning the lake to normal operations for 2014. 
 The Corps discovered the duskytail darter, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, during a required biological survey associated with the dam safety project at Wolf Creek Dam. Duskytail darters were found at seven new locations in the headwaters portion of the Big South Fork embayment in Lake Cumberland in stream habitat that was exposed during the drawdown. 
 “Collectively, these measures will help minimize impacts to the species and ensure the duskytail darter’s future survival in the Big South Fork,” said Lee Andrews, Field Office supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Kentucky. “We understand the recreational and economic importance of Lake Cumberland in southeast Kentucky and have worked closely with the Corps to expedite this review. This is another good example of how our implementation of the Endangered Species Act can balance economic and other human needs with the needs of our rarest species.” 
 The Corps and Wildlife Service agreed to move forward with three primary conservation measures that were essential to the Service’s analysis of the project’s effects on the duskytail darter. The three conservation measures are: Capture and Hold –– capturing duskytail darters and establishing a temporary, captive population of the species for future recovery efforts of the darter; Water Quality/Habitat Improvement –– the Corps will remediate two acid mine drainages on tributaries of the Big South Fork and also complete one sediment abatement/soil stabilization project; and Interim Dam Adjustment –– the Corps will modify operations at the Wolf Creek Dam to follow the Top Southeastern Power Administrative (SEPA) Curve during the Winter and Spring filling cycle with an overall goal of reaching elevation 723 around the middle of May. This interim operation will last for a minimum of three years, or longer, if the water quality improvements have not been completed. 
 The darters will be maintained and propagated at Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery in Russell County as part of the recovery effort and will, over time, be used in reintroduction or population augmentation efforts. Any reintroduction effort will require additional coordination with participating agencies. 
“(The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is going to take a bunch of those duskytail darters to (Wolf Creek Dam National Fish Hatchery),” Rogers said. He indicated the endangered minnows will be kept there until a proper habitat can be found.
  Presence of the Duskytail Darter in the Big South Fork River near Blue Heron in McCreary County created a firestorm  in late January when the Corps announced the lake would be held at 705 feet above sea level this summer because the endangered species of minnows had taken up residence in a five-mile stretch of the river while the lake was low. 
  Andrews said duskytail darters don’t live long. The minnows will be propagated at the fish hatchery while proper habitat is found, he indicated.
  How many duskytail darters will be taken to the federal hatchery?
  “I don’t know ... we don’t know exactly how many are out there (in the Big South Fork),” he said.
 The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people, said the Corps’ news release.
 Locals are ecstatic at the prospects of a full lake.
  “That’s fantastic news, not only for Somerset but for anyone who vacations on the lake,” said Bobby Clue, executive director of Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce. He said it is an example of the Corps working proactively with legislators and local officials.
  “That makes us very happy, as well as our visitors,” said Van Back, assistant at Somerset-Pulaski Convention & Visitors Bureau. Carolyn Mounce, the bureau’s executive director, is out of town and unavailable for comment.