Kentucky

Lake Cumberland at level not seen in 20 years because of heavy rain. The dam is fine.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was releasing a high volume of water from Wolf Creek Dam Wolf on Lake Cumberland on Feb. 20, 2019 after heavy rain pushed up the lake level.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was releasing a high volume of water from Wolf Creek Dam Wolf on Lake Cumberland on Feb. 20, 2019 after heavy rain pushed up the lake level. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Heavy rains in recent days have pushed Lake Cumberland higher than it’s been in more than 20 years, and the level is expected to continue to rise.

But Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds the giant lake, is not about to collapse and flood communities downstream, contrary to a report on a radio station in the lake region.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which administers the lake, said in a news release that a commentator on the station put out false information that the dam could fail at any time and that downstream residents needed to plan for evacuation.

“The dam is not failing,” Kyle Hayworth, dam safety program manager with the Nashville District of the corps, said in a news release.

Hayworth said the corps is keeping a close eye on the dam, and that there have been no signs of distress in the structure.

The Corps of Engineers declined to identify the radio station that put out the report.

The agency also addressed a video circulating on Facebook that showed water leaking from the face of the concrete dam.

The water was coming from a joint where drainage systems relieve pressure inside the dam. The seepage is normal and is not a safety concern, even with the lake well above the normal level, the corps said.

The elevation of the water surface was 741.62 feet above sea level at noon on Wednesday.

The last time it was that high was in April 1998, when the level reached 742.44 feet, according to the corps.

At the current level, however, only 47 percent of the flood-control pool at the lake is being used, the agency said.

It’s possible the lake level will reach an elevation of 750 feet with additional rain expected in the region.

If that happens, it would only be the third time since the dam was finished nearly 70 years ago that the lake level topped 745 feet, according to the corps.

That happened first in April 1962, when the lake reached 747.12 feet, and in May 1984, when the lake hit its “pool of record” at 751.69.

The flood-control pool at the lake goes up to 760 feet, the corps said.

The corps closed the Waitsboro and Fishing Creek recreation areas in Pulaski County, as well as the Slate Branch boat ramp, because of high water.

The agency also put up a temporary flood wall and sand bags last weekend on River View Road, just below the dam in Russell County, a project intended to keep a county road open that serves a number of homes.

A creek below the dam can back up and block the road when the corps releases more water through the dam.

The corps has been releasing water through the dam the last few days and plans to increase the volume in order to lower the lake level, but has to balance that against conditions downstream.

It could be months before the lake returns to a seasonal elevation because March and April are normally the months with the most rainfall in the region, the corps said.

“This winter has been an unprecedented event in that we continue to see rainfall events and have not had enough consecutive dry days to regain storage in the reservoir, nor have downstream conditions been conducive to increasing discharges from the dam,” said Robert Dillingham, a hydraulic engineer with the corps.

The corps completed a $594 million project a few years ago to install a barrier wall inside the earthen portion of the mile-long dame to block seepage through caves and fissures under the foundation.

The corps lowered the water level of the lake quickly in early 2007 because of an increased risk of failure, but said the barrier-wall project has worked to seal leaks and improve the integrity of the dam.

Bill Estep covers Southern and Eastern Kentucky.


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