Commonwealth Journal

May 10, 2014

After years of frustration, lake is back to normal

McConnell misses ceremony due to problems with plane

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — There’s not a happier man in Pulaski County than J.D. Hamilton. The owner of Lee’s Ford Resort Marina hosted a Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting Friday afternoon to celebrate Lake Cumberland’s return to normal.   

The event on Harbor Deck overlooking the lake was attended by a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, sprinkled with elected officials and candidates for public office from several Lake Cumberland area counties. Just about every word from the podium brought cheers and hand clapping.

“It’s not going to happen ... it HAS happened,” proclaimed a smiling Hamilton. From the deck at Harbor Restaurant, Lake Cumberland, lapping at the tree line, was in full view.

Senator Mitch McConnell, who was supposed to be the featured guest, didn’t make it to the event. Cynthia Rogers, wife of Congressman Hal Rogers, cut the ribbon, symbolic of the return of Lake Cumberland, the main economic driver for a 10-county area.

“I’ve been stuck all day on the tarmac of an airport in Washington, D.C.,” McConnell told a reporter for the Commonwealth Journal by cell phone. Terry Carmack, McConnell’s state director, said the senator’s plane was grounded by mechanical problems.

“I had a private plane ready to bring him here from Lexington, but he never got off the ground,” said Carmack. The senator missed several other scheduled appointments in Kentucky yesterday.

“I’m very familiar with the economic impact Lake Cumberland has on Southern Kentucky,” McConnell told the Commonwealth Journal. “I had a buddy with a houseboat at Alligator II and I’ve spent many a happy weekend on Lake Cumberland.”

McConnell promised Hamilton they will take a field trip to Wolf Creek Dam and personally view duskytail darters, the federally endangered minnows that almost kept Lake Cumberland from reaching pool stage this summer. The darters, for safekeeping, are going to be seined and taken to the Wolf Creek Dam National Fish Hatchery.

McConnell, Senator Rand Paul, Congressman Rogers and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee met with heads of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in McConnell’s office after it was announced the lake would be held more than 20 below normal this coming summer to protect the endangered duskytail darters.

“What did you tell them?” a reporter wondered. “Were you forceful?”

“We were forceful ... they did what they were supposed to do ... expedite a solution to the darter,” said McConnell.

Mrs. Rogers expressed disappointment that her husband couldn’t attend the celebration.

“Hal’s been in Washington voting on appropriation bills this week,” she said. Rogers is chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“He is awfully proud we have a safe dam,” she said, alluding to the $594 million Wolf Creek Dam Rehabilitation Project.

“If we work as hard as we did getting the lake back to normal, we’re going to put a lot of people back to work,” said Hamilton, encouraging a renewed economic effort. “This is the beginning ...,” he said.

“What Toyota is to Central Kentucky, Lake Cumberland is to Southern Kentucky,” said State Senator Chris Girdler. More than 4 million people visit Lake Cumberland each year, he noted.

“Tourism is the economic driver for the Lake Cumberland Area,” added Carolyn Mounce, executive director, Somerset-Pulaski Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said tourism brought $118 million to Pulaski County during the past fiscal year.

Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock called light rain that failed to dampen the hearty celebration “showers of blessings.”

“It’s going to be a great summer! We can feel it! The water is back and it’s beautiful!” Bullock declared.

Not a disturbing wave was on Lake Cumberland during the celebration. The 101-mile long lake, for the first time in seven summers, is its big beautiful self. Its deep blue waters are a subscription for relaxation.

“Let the fun begin!” chanted the celebrants.

Lake Cumberland, averaging 90 feet deep, is the third largest body of water east of the Mississippi River. The two larger lakes — Kentucky and Barkley in Western Kentucky — cover more ground, but are not nearly as deep. With more than 1,200 miles of shoreline, Lake Cumberland stretches from west of Jamestown east to near Corbin.

And, as for beauty, nothing compares. Framed by majestic foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, fingers of the lake nose into hidden coves perfect for houseboat vacations. The forgotten river bed, where six decades ago the mighty Cumberland River flowed, is as unchartered as the Indian Ocean.

An economic engine for a 10-county area, Lake Cumberland is a magnet that has drawn people and industrial plants to a job-starved area since the gates were closed at Wolf Creek Dam in December 1950. CEOs and company officials like to live near a lake. They love Lake Cumberland.

“Lake Cumberland is ready for visitors” seemed the theme of the ribbon-cutting fete. In normal operation, Lake Cumberland stays at or near the tree line between Memorial Day and July 4. After the Independence Day holiday, a slow drawdown begins toward Labor Day and into autumn, winter and early spring. The lower water levels during off-season provide storage space for flood control during rainy seasons.

A lot of water has run through the dam since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in January 2007 that the level of the lake must be lowered 43 feet because of the shaky condition of Wolf Creek Dam. Lake Cumberland at its low level still had about 35,000 acres of water, but perception is worse than reality and tourism interests suffered for seven long years.

The last pile was poured in March 2013 to complete a 4,000-foot-long, 275-foot-deep concrete barrier wall to stabilize the 63-year-old dam that had been declared in high risk of failure. The lake was allowed to rise about 20 feet last summer and businesses that depend on tourists for profit were confident Summer 2014 would be a normal vacation season.

Then came the duskytail darter. Seems the 2 1/2-inch-long minnow likes rocky riffles and moved down the Big South Fork River into headwaters of the lake while the waters were low.

“You can’t raise the lake ... you’ll drown our minnow,” environmentalist screamed. Duskytail darters apparently don’t like deep, still water.

Cries from tourism interests reached Washington D.C. and powerful people like Senator McConnell demanded a quick solution. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to take a sampling of duskytail darters to Wolf Creek Dam National Fish Hatchery for safekeeping. Since then — since March 25 — Lake Cumberland has been on the rise.

All and all, Lake Cumberland is again a vacation paradise.

Come on down, you’re welcome, was the message as Cynthia Rogers snipped the ribbon to “open” the lake.