For the first time in seven summers, the water in Lake Cumberland will be at its traditional deep level for the beginning of the 2014 tourist season if enough rain falls by Memorial Day.
Federal officials cleared the way to let the lake surface rise to 723 feet above sea level after another agency finished a review of an endangered fish, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday.
The corps has kept the lake lower than usual since 2007 during a repair project on Wolf Creek Dam. But with that project complete, an official said in January it was unlikely the lake would return to full pool again this summer because the agency had discovered colonies of the tiny, rare duskytail darter in the headwaters.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hurried its review of the situation and the two agencies agreed on plans to protect the fish, the corps announced. The corps will begin storing more water immediately, Lt. Col. John Hudson, commander of the division that operates the lake, said in a news release.
It was welcome news around the giant lake, where tourism interests have blamed a drawdown of the water level for hurting visitation.
"I've shouted it to the moon up here — our lake's back!" said Carolyn Mounce, head of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It is the best gift we could get."
It's been a long road to Tuesday's announcement.
The Corps of Engineers declared an emergency in January 2007 and quickly drained water from the lake after concluding there was a high risk the dam could fail because of leaks undermining the earthen part of the mile-long structure in Russell County.
The news caused some people to believe the lake wouldn't have enough water for boating and skiing. Visitation dropped more than 10 percent the first year of the drawdown, and marinas and government agencies collectively spent millions moving docks, boat slips and utilities and building access ramps and water intakes to deal with the lower level.
Business slid 20 percent or more at some lake businesses, and several marinas closed or struggled financially. Visitation still has not climbed back to the 2006 level of 4.4 million, though Mounce said 2013 was a better year than 2012.
The corps kept the level at 680 feet to ease pressure on the dam during a $594 million project to seal off leaks with a concrete wall inside the earthen section. The corps let the lake level rise to 705 feet at the start of the 2013 season while testing the completed repairs.
The repairs worked, leading many to believe the corps would let the lake surface rise to 723 feet to start the summer of 2014. In January, however, the corps threw cold water on those hopes with news that it had found seven colonies of the duskytail darter in tributaries of the lake in McCreary County.
Patrick Rakes, with Conservation Fisheries Inc., said the species found in the lake is actually now classified as the tuxedo darter. It is found only in the Big South Fork in McCreary County and adjoining Scott County, Tenn., he said.
The corps had to consult with the federal wildlife agency because raising the lake would affect the habitat of the endangered darter, which likes flowing water from large creeks and medium-sized rivers with little silt and bottoms of gravel, rubble or boulders.
Many people decried the situation as government regulation run amok, placing a tiny fish above the economic interests of people.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell ridiculed the situation on the floor of the Senate, saying the administration was protecting a fish from water.
"What's next? Protecting birds from the sky?" McConnell said.
Environmentalists said the law is designed to protect species. The darter is very rare and deserving of protection, Rakes said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service expedited its review and finished Monday, prompting an immediate decision by the corps to raise the lake.
The agencies agreed on three measures to protect the fish.
One is to capture and keep darters to use in later recovery efforts. Another requires the corps to pay for fixing two sites in the Big South Fork polluted by acid drainage from old coal mines, and to complete a soil stabilization project.
The corps also will control the winter and spring filling cycle at the lake to lessen impact on the fish.
Combined, the measures will help ensure the survival of the darter, Lee Andrews, head of the federal wildlife service's Kentucky office, said in a news release.
"This is another good example of how our implementation of the Endangered Species Act can balance economic and other human needs with the needs of our rarest species," Andrews said.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.