Kentucky

Big red button counters dam rumors

SOMERSET — No, Wolf Creek Dam is not on the verge of collapse. The National Guard hasn't been called out to evacuate downstream residents. Lake Cumberland is not a big mud hole without enough water for boating and fishing.

That is, unless you believe the rumor mill.

That's why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dam and giant lake, has taken the novel step of setting up a ”Rumor Control“ link on a Web page about the dam.

There have been a lot of jittery rumors and bad information about the dam and lake since the corps quickly lowered the water level in January 2007 to take pressure off the dam while beginning emergency repairs on leaks.

The agency wanted to set up a way for people to get correct information quickly, said Allison Jarrett, spokeswoman for the corps district that covers Lake Cumberland.

The corps has gotten calls at times from people below the dam worried about safety, for instance, Jarrett said.

”If they don't know the truth, obviously they're going to be concerned,“ she said.

People can use the rumor control link to submit questions to the corps, and someone will answer within 24 hours, Jarrett said. To access the link, go to http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/WolfCreek/ and click on the big red ”Rumor Control“ button.

Harvey Graves, emergency management director for Cumberland County, where a lot of land would be under water if the dam failed, said it's a good approach to help ease people's worries.

It doesn't take much to start a rumor, he said — someone sees a piece of equipment on the dam and don't know what it's for — and tales can get bigger as they travel.

”We're a small town. People just like to talk,“ he said.

Just a few weeks ago, a new wave of rumors swept lake country after a faulty instrument showed an abnormally high amount of movement in one area of the earthen section of the mile-long dam.

The data was incorrect. The dam was not unstable.

But James Flatt, manager at Indian Hills Resort Alligator Dock 2 in Russell County, said more than 50 people called the marina in one day about rumors that the corps was going to lower the lake level drastically and start evacuations.

A visitor from Ohio said he was boating near the dam when someone on another boat told him the dam was in danger, Flatt said.

”They came back here just as hard as they could go. They were scared to death,“ Flatt said. ”I said, "Somebody's having a good laugh on you.' ”

It was the latest example of perception problems and rumors that have affected the lake since early last year.

The dam was built in terrain where there are cracks, holes and caves underground, and water is seeping through the rocky foundation below the earthen part of the mile-long structure, potentially undermining it.

The dam is considered at risk of failing. If it did, there would be billions of dollars in damage downstream, and the potential for many deaths.

But before another rumor starts, here are the facts, according to the corps:

■ The dam is not at imminent risk of failing. It is more stable now than a year ago because contractors have pumped nearly 900,000 gallons of liquid cement, or grout, into holes under the dam to stem leaks.

■ It's not likely that a catastrophic breach would happen quickly.

■ If a problem did develop, hundreds of instruments that monitor seepage, settling and other indicators at the dam would provide ample warning so officials could notify people downstream to move to safety.

■ And yes, there's plenty of water for recreation at the lake.

That issue — the lake level — was the first subject of misconceptions. The corps has kept the level around 680 feet above seal level since early 2007 — about 40 feet below the normal level for the start of the summer boating season.

At that level, the lake still has about 38,000 surface acres — making it the third-largest in Kentucky. And the level normally falls with drier weather through the summer, so 680 is not dramatically below where it would be by Labor Day anyway.

But the perception many people took from news of the drawdown was that there wouldn't be enough water in 2007 to enjoy. They stayed away in droves; visitation was down more than 11 percent from 2006, and some businesses saw revenue fall by more than 30 percent.

Visitation has recovered somewhat this year, and many boaters say they like the lower water level because there is less debris and interesting shoreline has been uncovered.

”Ninety-five percent of my customers like it better the way it is now,“ Flatt said.

The lower water has even created an opportunity to clean debris and driftwood from the shoreline — 67,000 cubic yards so far, said the commander of the corps' Nashville District, Lt. Col. Bernard Lindstrom.

Still, many people whose livelihood depends on the lake would like a higher water level.

It's not clear when that will happen.

Corps officials had said that after contractors finished injecting the first curtain of grout at the dam, engineers would evaluate whether it had improved conditions enough to raise the water level five to 10 feet.

Many people hoped that line of grout would be done before the 2008 tourist season.

Recently, however, it's become clear that there are so many voids under one area of the dam — where the earthen part meets the concrete part — that contractors can't close out the grout line with their current method, officials said.

The corps plans to talk with a contractor to see if there is a different grout process to use, and has awarded a $341 million contract to build a thick, deep wall inside the earthen part of the dam to seal off leaks.

Some of that wall might have to be in place before the corps could raise the water level. Construction could start later this year.

Lindstrom told marina operators and tourism officials in a meeting this week that while he couldn't say when, the lake will rise.

”That lake level's coming up, folks,“ Lindstrom said during an upbeat talk. ”Nobody wants to be at 680. We all want to be at 700, right, or 720.“

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