Commonwealth Journal

January 29, 2014

Lake Cumberland vs. Duskytail Darter

Corps delays restoring lake level; blames tiny minnow

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Jamestown —

A rare little minnow may stop Lake Cumberland from returning to normal operation for the upcoming recreational season. All indications are a 2 1/2-inch-long fish, protected by the Endangered Species Act, will keep the lake this summer about the same level as last summer -- 18 feet higher than now but still 18 feet below the tree line.
Presence of the duskytail darter, a rare species of fish in the perch family, is the roadblock to higher water. Federally listed as an endangered species of the United States in 1993, the fish has been discovered in five miles of stream habitat in the headwaters of the lake. Don B Getty, manager of the $594 rehabilitation of Wolf Creek Dam, said the Corps is not permitted to reveal exact locations of the duskytail darters in Lake Cumberland.
Getty also said he wasn’t sure what type of impact raising the lake would have on the duskytail darters. A species survey report on December 11, 2013 confirmed presence of the federally endangered species. The darters were exposed during the lake drawdown that occurred in January 2007 when Wolf Creek Dam was classified in high risk of failure. 
The survey was a required compliance commitment made by the Corps as part of the Record of Decision for the Wolf Creek Dam/Lake Cumberland Environmental Impact Statement related to the emergency drawdown of the lake, the Corps’ news release said.
“We are working closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine an appropriate course of action including what conservation measures could be implemented to minimize any potential impacts to this species,” said Lt. Col. John L. Hudson, Nashville District commander.
Even though Getty’s tone was more optimistic, Hudson, in the Corps’ news release, flatly stated Lake Cumberland will not be higher this summer than last. The quotation, attributed to Hudson: “The lake will operate this coming recreation season at about 25 feet higher than (the 680 feet) when construction was ongoing at Wolf Creek Dam.” He said the 705-foot level “ ... will enable the same access to the lake and its significant recreational opportunities as the public enjoyed last year.”
Hudson went on to say: “We are working in close consultation with the (U.S. Wildlife) Service to ensure our actions are protective of the endangered species and its habitat as required by the Endangered Species Act.”
“A final decision about Lake Cumberland pool operating levels will be made after the Corps completes a biological assessment and the U.S. Wildlife Service prepares a biological opinion,” the news release said. Getty pointed out if the opinion doesn’t come until late spring there may not be sufficient rainfall to raise the lake to pool stage (723 feet at the tree line) for the upcoming recreational season. Of course, a final decision on returning the lake to normal operations has yet to be given by Brigadier General Margaret W. Burcham, commander of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the Corps.
“Our plan is to complete consultations with the Corps as soon as possible after we receive their biological assessment,” said Lee Andrews, field supervisor of Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kentucky Field Office. “This is our top priority.”
Construction on the Wolf Creek Dam cutoff wall to protect the electrical substation at the base of the dam is complete, the Corps said. Ongoing construction activities to remove the remaining shotrock fill on the upstream face of the embankment are expected to be completed by early March. Getty indicated the lake may be allowed to rise to 705 feet at that time. Lake level at noon yesterday was 687.05.