Corp: Lake Cumberland depth likely won't increase in 2010

bestep@herald-leader.comJune 26, 2009 

SOMERSET — The water level in Lake Cumberland will likely remain lower than usual through the 2010 summer tourist season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday.

There had been some hope the corps could consider raising the lake level for the 2010 season.

However, repairs to a key section of Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds the giant lake and is leaking, won't be done as quickly as earlier expected.

That section, where the earthen part of the mile-long dam joins the concrete part, is the area with the greatest potential for failure because of holes in the rock under it.

The corps must make sure that area is sound before considering whether to raise the lake level, federal officials said at a meeting in Somerset.

"We're working as hard as we can to make sure this dam is safe," said Brig. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the corps division that includes Lake Cumberland.

The corps decided to quickly lower the amount of water in the lake in January 2007 after engineers concluded it was at high risk of failing because of leaks.

The corps has since kept the lake surface at 680 feet above sea level, about 40 feet below the usual summer peak.

The drawdown hurt tourism. Marina operators said many potential visitors had a misperception that the lake was dry; visitation in 2007 dropped more than 11 percent from 2006, and some marinas and other businesses said their revenue plunged by more than 30 percent.

Visitors have since gotten used to the lower level and like it, in part because it means less debris in the lake, so the announcement of a fourth year at the 680-foot level isn't necessarily bad news, marina operators said after the meeting.

"The lake level makes no difference in the recreational opportunities right now," said Bill Jasper, president of State Dock in Russell County. "It's great."

Even at the drawdown level, Lake Cumberland is still the third-largest lake in the state. No other lake in the region compares, Jasper said.

Still, raising the lake level would help in the upper reaches where the drawdown had greater impact. Two marinas moved because they were left in shallow water.

Increasing the level would also send a positive sign, marina operators said.

"I think the sooner it gets back to normal, the better it'll be for everybody," said James Flatt, general manager of Indian Hills Resort Alligator Dock 2 in Russell County.

Wolf Creek Dam was built in terrain that has caves and voids in the rock under the earthen part of the mile-long structure. Water is seeping through, creating a risk of failure.

The Corps started emergency repairs in 2007, injecting grout into the foundation of the dam to stem leaks. That has helped the structural integrity, and the dam is safer now than it was, agency officials have said.

However, the grout didn't work in the area where the earthen and concrete sections of the dam meet.

A contractor is now in the early stages of a $341 million project to build a massive concrete wall inside the earthen part of the dam, deep into the rock foundation, to cut off leaks.

The repair at the section of the dam with the most potential to fail probably won't be done until October 2010, however, meaning there is little chance the lake level could be raised before the 2011 tourist season.

There had been some expectation of finishing that section by next spring, creating the potential for a higher lake level in the summer of 2010.

Recent evaluations of the construction plan have made it clear that isn't likely, however, corps officials said.

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