Commonwealth Journal

February 3, 2014

Leading lawmakers petitioning Corps to refill lake

As little as one fish could hold up progress

by Ken Shmidheiser
Commonwealth Journal

Washington, D.C. —

Four U.S Congressional leaders are spearheading the battle to prevent as little as a single endangered minnow from preventing the restoration of Lake Cumberland to normal pool level this summer.
U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. and Congressmen Hal Rogers and Ed Whitfield, expressed their concerns in a joint letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday.
“We urge your agencies to immediately collaborate...in a manner that would allow for restoring the higher water levels on which the local community relies. It is critical that Lake Cumberland be able to raise water levels adequate to support tourism prior to the peak season in 2014. It is well past time for the lake to return to its full capacity,” the lawmakers wrote.
Despite the completion of $594 million to repairs to fix the leaky Wolf Creek Dam which impounds Lake Cumberland, the Corps recently announced that the discovery of as little as a single endangered Duskytail Darter in the lake waters would prevent the Corps from returning the lake level to normal pool elevation this summer.
Don Getty, a spokesperson for the Corps’ Nashville District which manages Lake Cumberland, yesterday told The Commonwealth Journal that since the Duskytail Darter is an endangered species, the “taking”—harming, capturing or killing—of a as little as a single minnow is enough to stop the Corps from allowing the lake to return to normal levels.
Getty also noted: “There is not an inkling of truth” to speculation circulating that the Corps may have raised the Duskytail Darter issue to draw attention away from potential problems with the dam’s integrity.
Getty explained that with the conclusion of rehabilitation of Wolf Creek Dam, a final environmental impact study was made.
“We were concerned we would find endangered mussels in the lake, but instead we found the Duskytail Darters,” Getty said.
A five-year study of Duskytail, Tuxedo, Citico and Marbled darters released in 2008 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded:
“No foreseeable threats exist that would likely threaten the survival of any of the populations.”
However, Getty explained that while Lake Cumberland’s waters were lowered to expedite repair work on the dam, the Duskytail Darters that were in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland which feeds into Lake Cumberland, apparently migrated from the river into the lake, hence creating the environmental concern.
During the seven years’ of repair work to Wolf Creek Dam, lake tourism has suffered. Communities on the lake, especially Somerset and Burnside in Pulaski County, had been eagerly anticipating the restoration of the lake to normal pool level this year. Now that the sale of alcoholic beverages is legal in both Somerset and Burnside, officials had hoped that the attraction of the “Ohio Navy” back to Lake Cumberland would make 2014 a banner year for tourism.
Following is the complete text of the letter by Senators McConnell and Paul and Congressmen Rogers and Whitfield letter to Lt. Col. John L. Hudson, Division Commander General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District, and to Daniel M. Ashe, Director of the U.s. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Dear Lt. Col. Hudson and Director Ashe: 
We write today about a matter of great concern to the economic wellbeing of the Lake Cumberland area in southeastern Kentucky. 
Lake Cumberland has a long history serving as one of Kentucky’s most popular recreational tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors and dollars annually to rural Kentucky, As you may know, the repair of the Wolf Creek Dam began in 2007 and has led to extremely low water levels that have damaged the area’s ability to attract tourists. The past seven years of reduced water levels have not only hurt small businesses that rely on this tourism, but have also strained local governments as local towns have had to lower their water intake. Marinas have had to spend valuable dollars on boat ramp upgrades and dock relocations; dollars that could have been spent on growing businesses, fairing new workers and enhancing local commerce. In addition, the drawdown of water has deterred tourism as a perception has been created among potential visitors that the lake is no longer suitable for boating, fishing and water sports. 
Despite all of these serious economic concerns, on January 29,2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its intent to further delay the raising of the water levels on Lake Cumberland. The Corps announced this was due to the presence of an endangered species of fish, the Duskytail Darter, in the lake’s tributaries, which requires the agencies to undertake a Biological Assessment designed to “minimize any potential impacts to this species.” 
We urge your agencies to immediately collaborate on the Biological Assessment and, in so doing, use your agencies’ discretion in the resulting Biological Opinion to resolve any potential problems in a manner that would allow for restoring the higher water levels on which the local community relies. It is critical that Lake Cumberland be able to raise water levels adequate to support tourism prior to the peak season in 2014. It is well past time for the lake to return to its full capacity. 
We thank you for your time and consideration. Should you need immediate assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Tate Bennett with Senator McConnell at (202) 224-2541.