"Bureaucracy run amok!”
That’s how Carolyn Mounce describes the decision this week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to comply with federal environmental laws and regulations to keep Lake Cumberland this coming summer at the same level as last summer to protect an endangered tiny fish.
Mounce’s reaction is typical. Frankly, the little fish has hit a big fan. Powerful people are weighing in, taking swings at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. The want the lake to return to normal operation, meaning a summer pool stage at tree line.
First, let Mounce have her say. She is responsible for promoting the tourism industry in Pulaski County, and frankly she is appalled at the Corps’ decision to hold the level of the lake down another summer.
More about Mounce in a moment, but first, let’s set the stage. The duskytail darter, sometimes called a tuxedo darter, has been found in a section of the Big South Fork River that was inundated a half century by the lake before the drawdown in 2007.
While the lake was down the little fish wiggled downriver to new spots closer to the lake. According to the Endangered Species Act, if the lake is raised the fish won’t survive in still deep water. Flowing water over a boulder-strewn river bed is a darter’s favorite haunt.
Mounce has enthusiastically delivered the message of Lake Cumberland returning to normal. “The dam is fixed! Lake Cumberland is back to normal! Come on down, the water’s fine,” Mounce has proclaimed at sport shows all winter.
The Corps’ decision slapped her in the face. “I just returned Sunday from attending tourist and travel shows in Cincinnati and Louisville,” Mounce related. “The shows were crowded ... people were engaged. They want to talk about Lake Cumberland. They are excited about the lake returning to normal operation. Some said they had gone to other lakes, but now they’re coming back to Lake Cumberland.”
“And now this,” continued an obviously frustrated Mounce. “I owe these people an apology. I told them the lake is coming back ... the dam is fixed.”
Mounce concedes perception is worse than reality. However, publicity going out about the lake not returning to normal projects an image of a “dry” lake that has caused the tourism industry to suffer for seven years, she said.
Mounce paused a moment. “We have plenty of water ... all indications are we had a wonderful tourism season last year,” she concedes.
Before the politicians weigh in, let’s hear from J.D. Hamiton, owner-operator of Lee’s Ford Marina Resort. Hamilton admits to having suffered financially during the seven summers the lake has been lower than normal.
“Why now?” Hamilton wonders about protecting the endangered fish. He has reports that show darters have consistently been found in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River since at least 1998. Hamilton says he has copies of official reports that show greatest concentrations of duskytail darters are far from Lake Cumberland.
“This is not new news,” Hamilton continued. “Why hasn’t something been done about the darter before now. We’ve publicized the lake will return to normal this summer ... it’s going to hurt.”
Bobby Clue, executive director of Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, expresses concern.
“As a chamber of commerce, we are very concerned about any movement that might impede the progress of business. I would urge the Corps to reconsider this decision.”
Political powers in Washington, D.C. and Frankfort are flexing their muscles.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the Corps’ action “unacceptable.”
“The water level at Lake Cumberland has been and continues to be a major concern for many in the community, and (Wednesday’s) announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unacceptable,” said McConnell. “The lower water level for the past few years has hurt the local economy, due to a decrease in the amount of visitors to the popular recreational area.
“I urge the Army Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to reconsider this decision and I will contact both agencies immediately to express concerns of those in the community,” promised McConnell.
Congressman Hal Rogers urged quick resolution of the matter.
“First and foremost, I want lake enthusiasts to know that Lake Cumberland will still be available for boating and fishing this summer with an attractive pool level, above 700 feet. However, continuous delays on the Wolf Creek Dam project have created costly inconveniences for the tourism industry in and around Lake Cumberland for nearly a decade and this is disappointing to say the least, he said.
“I expect the endangered fish to be cared for as quickly as possible, so the lake can be raised an additional 20 feet this summer. I have requested regular updates from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to ensure there are no additional delays,” Rogers concluded.
U.S. Senator Rand Paul called the situation “obnoxious.”
“Kentuckians are being asked to suffer through yet another absurd ordeal at the hands of the federal government. Lake Cumberland businesses, families and visitors have waited seven years for a return to normalcy, and federal agencies are now saying we'll probably have to wait even longer. Any delay is obnoxious and I would hope federal authorities would recognize the negative impact,” said Paul.
“I have introduced legislation that would let us avoid problems like these altogether,” Paul continued. “The Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act would give Kentucky the power to regulate all of our endangered species and also give Congress the ability to review the process of naming endangered species,” said Paul.
Kentucky Senator Chris Girdler, Somerset, said the Corps is giving the duskytail darter too many rights.
“For eight years now, the Army Corps of Engineers has single-handedly stifled the economic development opportunities of our region. Their decision to not raise the water level at Lake Cumberland this summer gives the duskytail darter more rights than our own citizens,” said Girdler.
“This announcement places an unnecessary burden on our already hurting business owners, and it comes at a time when many of these business owners have already spent money promoting the upcoming season,” Girdler continued. “I join Congressman Hal Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell in calling for the Corps to reconsider this decision,” he said.