What's new this summer? The 'old' Lake Cumberland is back after 8 years of low water

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 23, 2014 

SOMERSET — Optimism about the summer tourist season at Lake Cumberland has risen along with the water level, which will be higher for the Memorial Day weekend than it has been since 2006.

In Russell County, Marvin Hill recently reopened the Anchor Inn Motel, which had been closed for more than three years as visitation at the lake lagged.

At the Springs Inn, another Russell County motel, anglers drawn by top fishing conditions are booking rooms as far out as October, said Lisa Guffey-Cardoza, who manages the 37-unit motel.

In Clinton County, boaters can get into the picturesque cove at 76 Falls again. The spot was once a top party destination, but an emergency drawdown of the lake level in 2007 left it inaccessible.

And at Lee's Ford Marina Resort in Pulaski County, several boat owners who had left Lake Cumberland for other reservoirs during the drawdown have come back, said owner J.D. Hamilton.

"It's making all the difference in the world," Hamilton said of the higher lake level. "Cumberland's back! I think there's just a ton of excitement."

What the lake is "back" from is years with the water level lower than usual for tourist season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to quickly lower the level in January 2007 after engineers said leaks under the earthen section of Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds the lake, created a high risk of failure.

The corps hired contractors to install a massive concrete wall inside the earthen dam to cut off leaks, at a cost of nearly $600 million.

The surface level at the lake for the beginning of the summer season had traditionally been 723 feet above sea level, but the corps kept the level at 680 feet for six years to ease pressure on the dam during repairs.

In addition to causing costly headaches for marinas that had to move docks and utilities, and for cities that had to lower water intakes, the drawdown hurt visitation, creating a false perception for some people that there wasn't enough water for boating and skiing.

The steep national recession and high gas prices also hurt.

The corps estimated there were more than 4.4 million visits to the lake in 2006, well more than any year since.

There were 11 commercial marinas on the lake before the drawdown. Several closed, went through bankruptcy or were forced to sell because of financial problems, according to interviews and court records. Other businesses suffered as well.

There are nine marinas open on the lake now under leases from the corps, said Tom Hale, the agency's operations manager for the region that includes the lake.

"The lake being down hurt so many different things," said Janette Marson, tourism director in Russell County.

Hill, owner of the Anchor Inn Motel, said he shuttered the restaurant in 2007 and the motel in December 2010.

"There was just nobody coming down," he said.

With the dam-repair project completed, however, the corps raised the water level to 705 feet last year while testing the structure. The repairs worked, so the agency said it would let spring rains push the water level to 723 feet to begin the 2014 vacation season.

It was at 722.6 feet early Friday.

Estimated visitation improved by 100,000 last year, and business owners said they believe interest in the higher water level will mean even more visitors this year.

Hill said that's what led him to re-open the motel in early May.

"I feel good about this season," he said Friday.

Guffey-Cardoza, the manager at the Springs Motel in Russell Springs, said guests have been excited about the size of the stripers and other fish they're catching.

They also say they're glad the lake level is higher.

"Everyone that calls is excited about seeing the lake up again," she said.

Some people liked the lake level where it was last year, at 705 feet, which left some of the bank exposed and made it easier to tie up boats along the shore.

But several people putting boats and personal watercraft into the lake Friday said they were glad to see it back at the level visitors had been used to seeing for decades.

"Way better lake when the water is up," said John Bennett of Chillicothe, Ohio. Bennett and his wife, Pam, visit the lake several times a summer with their friends Pam and Rick Skaggs, who keep a houseboat at Lee's Ford.

The higher lake level creates thousands of extra surface acres for boating — 50,000, compared with about 38,000 at 680 — and restores access to some coves.

Several visitors said they think the lake is prettier at the higher level.

"I think it's bringing back more beauty to the lake," said Ashley Sears of Louisville. She and her husband have a houseboat at Lee's Ford.

Debris such as logs has been a problem in the lake this spring.

Hale said the corps is using a specially-equipped boat to pull logs out of the lake in Pulaski County, and will continue to do so through the summer.

"We're making some strides," he said, but he cautioned boaters to be careful.

Wayne County Judge-Executive Greg Rankin said the lake has always been a beautiful place with lots of room for boating, even when the water was down, but tourism officials got questions for years about it being dry.

So, he said, the news about the water level being back up will be a great boost.

"There's been plenty of water, but everyone realizes it now," Rankin said. "Now everyone will know that there are no issues. Hopefully that'll get us back to where we were."

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

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