With water level higher, optimism rises around Lake Cumberland

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 25, 2013 

  • Lake Cumberland visits

    2006 4,412,139

    2007* 3,958,719

    2008 3,965,993

    2009 3,830,485

    2010 4,029,771

    2011 3,870,302

    2012 3,855,410

    * First season with lower water level

    Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

JAMESTOWN — The water is back up in Lake Cumberland. Now, businesses in lake country hope visitation will rise as well.

This Memorial Day weekend is the first in seven years with the water level in the giant lake close to its normal level for the beginning of tourist season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had kept the surface of the lake about 40 feet below the traditional early-summer level since 2007 to facilitate repairs to Wolf Creek Dam.

Visitation at the lake suffered during the drawdown, but with the repair project nearly complete, the agency let the water begin rising earlier this year.

Excitement among users of the lake also seems to be rising. J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee's Ford Marina Resort in Pulaski County, said he is hearing "terrific comments," and several regular boaters said the higher water level will create more space on the lake and restore access to coves that were out of reach the last several years.

"We like it because it gives you more places to go," said Robert Adcock of Crestwood, who relaxed Friday with his wife, Debbie, on a houseboat at Lake Cumberland State Dock in Russell County. "I'm glad it's going back up."

The Corps of Engineers made an emergency decision to quickly lower the water level in January 2007 in order to take pressure off the dam after engineers said there was a high risk the dam would fail.

The dam, finished in the early 1950s, was built across the Cumberland River in Russell County at a spot where the earth is honeycombed with caves and fissures. Water seeping through those channels under the earthen section of the mile-long dam caused leaks.

The corps oversaw a project to build a wall inside the dam in the 1970s, but the project didn't cut off all the places water could seep through.

The corps hired contractors in 2007 for a massive, $594 million project to build another concrete wall inside the dam, spanning the length of the earthen part and reaching into the rock below.

The lake level at the beginning of the summer season had traditionally been 723 feet above sea level. The corps quickly released enough water in early 2007 to reduce it to 680 feet, setting off a scramble around the lake.

Marinas had to spend millions to move docks and utilities. Several cities lowered their water-system intakes, and the lower water left many boat ramps out of water, requiring upgrades.

Worse, perhaps, news of the decision created a perception that there wouldn't be enough water in the lake for boating, skiing and fishing.

"People would say, "What are you going to do now that your lake has no water?'" said Angela Cash, a longtime lake user who lives north of Cincinnati but also has a house in Wayne County. "I do think it deterred some people."

Cash and other regular lake users knew better.

The deep reservoir, with more than 1,200 miles of picturesque shoreline, can store more water than any man-made lake east of the Mississippi River, and had the third-largest surface area even at the lower level.

"It's truly a beautiful lake," Cash said.

It's clear the drawdown kept some users away, however. Additionally, tourism suffered because of higher gas prices — it's not cheap to pull a boat from Cincinnati to southern Kentucky at $4 a gallon — and the worst national economic slump since the 1930s.

It's been a tough six years for some businesses around the lake.

The corps estimated there were more than 4.4 million visits to the lake in 2006. The number has been lower every year since, reaching only 3.85 million last year.

And Hamilton, the Lee's Ford Marina Resort owner, said the numbers don't tell the full story. The drop in visitation was more likely among overnight visitors, who spend more money than people who come to the lake for a day, he said.

There were 11 commercial marinas on the lake in 2006. Of those, five either closed, went through bankruptcy or were forced to sell because of financial problems, according to interviews and court records. A sixth is in bankruptcy now.

Marinas and other businesses saw revenue drop as much as half.

Barry Begley, who owns TimperPointe Resort in Russell County, said the business hasn't turned a profit since before the lake level went down.

The resort, with 10 two-bedroom cabins and a 12-room motel, is on the road to a tributary of the lake where one marina closed.

Marinas on tributaries perhaps faced bigger challenges because the water was more shallow there.

Begley said he's kept his resort afloat with savings and a loan from the federal Small Business Administration, which declared an economic disaster in the area, but a nearby motel and a convenience store that relied on tourist traffic closed.

"It's been pretty brutal," he said.

Except in times when rain raised the lake level for short periods, the corps kept the surface at 680 feet from 2007 until this spring.

The repair project on the dam was scheduled to be done late in 2013, meaning the corps wouldn't let the water start back up toward traditional summer levels until 2014. Contractors finished the new wall ahead of schedule, however, and the corps said all indications, so far, are that the fix worked.

As a result, the agency allowed the water level to rise to 705 feet with the spring rains and plans to keep it there this summer, said Tom Hale, the corps' operations manager for the upper Cumberland River. Several visitors around the lake this weekend said they were glad.

"Better, much better," said Dan Mulcahy of Lexington, as he and girlfriend Terry Neal unloaded supplies for the Memorial Day weekend at Lake Cumberland State Dock.

"I think this is nice. I think it's prettier," said Natalie St. Clair of Cincnnati, who was with her friend Heidi Cummings on their 27-foot cruiser at the marina.

John Schuh, who with his wife, Jean, was putting their runabout into the lake at Lee's Ford, said he was looking forward to taking some pictures of waterfalls around the lake.

"Boy, are we glad to have it back up where it is," Schuh said. The Schuhs are from Cincinnati but own a cabin in Pulaski County.

Tourism officials and business owners are keeping their fingers crossed that, as word of the higher water spreads, visitation will go up. That will take time.

Some people left Lake Cumberland the last few years for other spots, including Dale Hollow and Norris Lake.

"If you lose a family, you lose a generation," said Bill Jasper, president of Lake Cumberland State Dock. "It takes time to build back."

Cool, rainy weather many weekends this year has not helped tourism, and the forecast was for relatively cool weather the first part of the Memorial Day weekend.

Some business owners said their sales this weekend were not greater than last year's, but Jasper said his houseboat rentals are up over this time last year, and he added more rental ski boats and pontoons.

"I'm extremely encouraged," he said.


Lake Cumberland visits

2006 4,412,139

2007* 3,958,719

2008 3,965,993

2009 3,830,485

2010 4,029,771

2011 3,870,302

2012 3,855,410

* First season with lower water level

Source: U.S. Army Corpsof Engineers

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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