Heavy rains bring Lake Cumberland to full summer level for first time since 2006

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 1, 2014 

A family headed out onto Lake Cumberland from the state dock last May.

SOMERSET — It's official: Lake Cumberland will be at the full summer level to start the tourism season this month, for the first time since 2006.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday that heavy rainfall the last few days had pushed the lake level up to 724 feet above sea level.

That's just above the 723-foot mark that lake users had gotten used to seeing in May for decades, until an emergency drawdown in early 2007 to facilitate repairs on Wolf Creek Dam cut the level to 680 feet, where it stayed for years.

Tourism suffered because of the drawdown, the recession and high gas prices. A number of marinas and other businesses dependent on the lake saw income drop, or even closed.

So the news that the lake will be back at full pool for Memorial Day has created a great deal of excitement, said Carolyn Mounce, head of the Somerset-Pulaski Convention & Visitors Bureau. She had been checking the lake level on her telephone throughout the day.

"There's almost like an electricity in the air when you talk about the lake," Mounce said. "Everyone that I talk to says, 'Yeah, the lake is back!'"

In fact, Lee's Ford Resort Marina has scheduled a "Lake Cumberland's Back Bash" on May 9 to celebrate, with free hats and T-shirts and a ribbon cutting by the local chamber of commerce to ceremonially "open" the lake, Mounce said.

The Corps quickly dropped the water level in the lake in January 2007 after concluding that leaks under the earthen portion of Wolf Creek Dam created a high risk that it would fail.

The agency kept the water level down as it oversaw a project to install a massive concrete wall inside the earthen part of the dam to seal off leaks.

With the project done, lake users and businesses expected that the Corps would return the lake to 723 feet to begin this summer.

Those hopes sank earlier this year when the agency announced that it had found new populations of the endangered duskytail darter in the headwaters of the lake, requiring an assessment of how to protect the fish.

It seemed unlikely that process would be finished in time to catch enough spring rains to push the lake to 723 feet by Memorial Day.

However, the Corps and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expedited a plan for protecting the fish, clearing the way for the Corps to let the surface of the giant reservoir rise to 723.

Mother Nature did the rest, pouring several inches of rain into the watershed in three days this week.

The lake is forecast to crest just above 727 feet Saturday, the Corps said in a news release.

The Corps is running all six hydropower generating units at the dam to keep the lake at 723 feet.

The water rise, although welcomed by many people, has left a good deal of debris floating in the lake. The Corps cautioned boaters to be careful, and Mounce said cleanup efforts are continuing.

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

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