Endangered duskytail darter may prevent raising Lake Cumberland to normal summer level

bestep@herald-leader.comJanuary 29, 2014 

SOMERSET — An endangered fish in the headwaters of Lake Cumberland probably will prevent the water level in the reservoir from being raised to the traditional summer mark for the eighth year in a row, dashing the hopes of some business owners and lake users for deeper water.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced Wednesday that it had found populations of the tiny duskytail darter, denoted by some conservationists as the tuxedo darter, in five miles of stream area in the headwaters of the lake.

Letting the lake surface rise to the traditional level of 723 feet above sea level for the start of the summer tourism season would inundate the areas.

The corps can't do anything that would damage the habitat until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurs on a plan to minimize the effect on the fish.

The two agencies probably can't finish the process in time for the corps to let spring rains accumulate and push the lake level to 723 feet by Memorial Day.

That would leave the target elevation at 705 feet.

"The likelihood of getting significantly above 705 is probably not very great" for this summer, though it is not out of the question, said Don Getty, manager of a project to fix leaks in Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds the giant reservoir.

That was not welcome news for some lake users and businesses, who think a return to the traditional summer pool level would boost visitation.

"There's just no question it's gonna hurt," said J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee's Ford Resort Marina, which is on the Fishing Creek branch of the lake in Pulaski County.

The Corps of Engineers declared an emergency and quickly drained water from the lake in January 2007 after concluding there was a high risk the dam could fail.

Visitation at the lake dropped more than 10 percent the first year of the drawdown, in part because of an incorrect perception there wasn't enough water left to enjoy.

Some businesses saw much bigger downturns, and several marinas closed or struggled financially. There are nine commercial marinas on the lake now, down from 11 before the drawdown.

Visitation still has not climbed back to the 2006 level of 4.4 million. About 3.8 million visited in 2012.

The corps lowered the lake level to ease pressure on Wolf Creek Dam during a $594 million project to fix leaks.

The dam was built across the Cumberland River in Russell County, where the ground is shot through with caves and fissures. Water leaking through channels under the earthen section of the milelong dam threatened to undermine the structure.

Contractors built a massive new wall inside the earthen part of the dam to seal off leaks, finishing the job last spring. Tests have shown the repairs worked, Getty said.

The corps kept the lake level at 680 feet from 2007 until last year but let it rise to 705 feet to begin the 2013 tourism season.

Some lake users said they liked the lake at 705 feet, but others said they looked forward to seeing the lake at the full 723-foot pool for the first time since 2006.

The visitation numbers for 2013 are not official, but it appeared to be the best season in several years, said Tom Hale, the corps' operations manager for the Upper Cumberland River.

With the dam repaired, business owners and tourism officials were looking for even more visitors this year. They spread the news at trade shows and on websites that the lake would be back to 723 feet in 2014.

The announcement that it probably won't be is unacceptable, Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said.

McConnell said he would urge the two federal agencies to reconsider.

State Sen. Chris Girdler, a Republican from Somerset, said in a statement that the federal agencies were putting fish above people.

"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 said.

Officials from the corps and the wildlife agency said they understood the desire to raise the lake level but must follow federal law protecting endangered species.

The two agencies said they were working as quickly as possible to get through the process.

"This is our top priority," said Lee Andrews, Kentucky field supervisor for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

Andrews said his office had worked with the corps to develop several potential measures to reduce effects on the fish and speed review of the plan.

Those conservation measures could include controlling the lake level in a way to preserve some of the darter habitat in the headwaters.

The corps does not envision ultimately having to change its target 723-foot summer pool level for the lake, however, Getty said.

The new darter colonies were found in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in McCreary County, Andrews said.

There are more than a dozen other locations of the fish in the Big South Fork.

Hamilton questioned why the corps didn't find the darter colonies — and get started on the conservation process — sooner.

The fish has been documented in the area for years, he said.

"If it didn't affect us financially, I'd be laughing," Hamilton said.

Getty said federal agencies knew the darter was in the area but did not know it would move into new habitat areas created by the lake drawdown.

The corps confirmed the presence of the fish in the new spots in December as part of an assessment it agreed to do on the environmental impact of the lake drawdown.

In his statement on Wednesday's announcement, U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, a Republican who lives in Somerset, said it was important to remember that even at 705 feet, there is plenty of room for boating and fishing on the lake.

Still, 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."

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

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