Commonwealth Journal

February 4, 2014

Corps says there are no issues with safety of Wolf Creek Dam

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Jamestown —

“There is no known issue with (Wolf Creek) dam. There is not a shred of evidence anything is wrong with the dam,” emphasized Don B. Getty, manager of the $594 million rehabilitation of the mile-long structure that impounds Lake Cumberland.
Getty made the statement Tuesday in response to rumors that publicized information about duskytail darters preventing the lake from resuming normal operation this summer is really a ploy to take attention from possible problems at Wolf Creek Dam. Tourism interest in the Lake Cumberland area worry because the lake level continues to fall and water is being released through the dam at a rate of more than 21,000 cubic feet a second.
The darter is to blame, Corps officials insist. Taking, harming, capturing or killing a single minnow is enough to stop the Corps from allowing the lake to return to normal levels,” Getty told a Commonwealth Journal reporter. “It’s all about the environmental issue ... that’s the only thing,” Getty assured. 
The Corps announced last week that Lake Cumberland will be allowed to rise this coming summer to 705 feet above sea level, the same as last summer. Normal operation with sufficient rainfall would allow the lake to reach 723 feet at the tree line during the vacation season. 
“After seven years and over a half billion dollars put into the dam that is supposedly fixed under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we now get delayed by a minnow!” wrote David Keller of Somerset in a Letter to the Editor. “To me this is very suspicious as to the true status of the dam,” he observed.
J.D. Hamilton, owner-operator of Lee’s Ford Marina Resort, says a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five-year study concluded no foreseeable threats exist that would likely threaten survival of the duskytail darter. Hamilton quoted the report as saying 90 percent of duskytail darters found in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River are between Station Camp Creek and Blue Heron, a long way from Lake Cumberland.
“It’s difficult to see why this is an issue,” concluded Hamilton.
As aforementioned, worries abound because the lake level continues to drop even below the 690-foot level maintained since last fall to complete work on the face of the dam. The level Tuesday morning was just above 687 feet and water was being released at a rate of more than 21,000 cubic feet per second.
Getty explained the current level is the result of work being done on the upstream side of the dam. Shotrock on the face of the dam during the construction period has been removed and riprap is being put in place.
“We may be delayed some by heavy rains forecast for (Tuesday) night,” said Getty. Current target is to complete putting down riprap during the next two weeks. At that time the level of the lake is expected to rise to 705 feet, same as last summer, Getty said.
Meanwhile, Getty said the last concrete was poured Friday to complete the extension of a wall to protect the electrical switchyard at the base of the dam. This project has nothing to do with the dam, he noted.
Lee Andrews, field supervisor for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kentucky Field Office, explains the problem with duskytail darters. He said the endangered minnows have been found in five miles of stream habitat in headwaters of Lake Cumberland where the Big South Fork enters Lake Cumberland near Burnside.
Simply put, duskytail darters live in flowing water, preferably over a rocky, boulder-strewn river bed. While the lake was kept low for seven years to repair Wolf Creek Dam, a five-mile stretch of the Big South Fork, no longer backed up by the lake, returned to normal and the endangered darters moved in that part of the river.
That’s the problem now. You can’t kill ‘em, you can’t catch ‘em, you can’t touch ‘em and you can’t raise the lake back to normal without destroying the darter’s new habitat, according to the Endangered Species Act.
Andrews doesn’t expect it will take a long, drawn-out period to come up with an answer to save the endangered darter from a higher lake. He said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a maximum of 135 days to resolve the problem from the time it receives a biological assessment from the Corps. 
“We expect to receive the assessment as early as this week,” he said last week. “That means at the maximum we will be done by June.” However, he added: “We expect to have it done well in advance of that.”