3rd year of repairs to lake puts pressure on businesses

JAMESTOWN — Contractors are making progress on a massive project to repair the leaky dam that impounds Lake Cumberland, but some businesses want help staying afloat until the work is done.

The water level in the lake is being kept lower than the usual tourist-season mark for the third year in a row to ease pressure on the dam during repairs.

The decision to lower the water level hurt tourism after it was announced in January 2007.

The move was necessary, however, because Wolf Creek Dam was one of seven Army Corps of Engineers dams in the nation rated most at risk of failure, Corps officials said.

The need for repairs was crucial because public safety must be the top priority, said Lt. Col. Bernie Lindstrom, who heads the Corps district that includes the lake.

"We saw immediate failure" on the horizon, Lindstrom said Tuesday as the Corps hosted a tour of the repair project.

The lake's economic impact as a tourism destination is estimated at $150 million annually, but visits dropped by more than 11 percent from 2006 to 2007, and some marinas and other businesses said their revenue fell by 30 percent or more.

At the request of some marina operators and other businesses, several local governments around the lake recently approved a resolution saying that the Corps, which manages the lake, didn't have a plan to alleviate the "economic devastation" of the decision to lower the water, and that it mismanaged the situation.

"They literally put us in a recession before this recession," said J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee's Ford Marina Resort in Pulaski County.

Hamilton said his marina's cash flow was down by half in 2007. He borrowed money from the Small Business Administration, which calculated his "economic injury" at $1.5 million over two years, Hamilton said.

The resolution — also endorsed by the state Senate and House — called on Congress and Gov. Steve Beshear to seek an investigation of the Corps, for Congress to help manage the lake and for Congress to direct the Corps to begin stimulating the area economy.

Hamilton said the Corps should compensate marina operators for lost revenue, stop charging marinas rent and be more flexible in allowing operators to create more parking and recreation opportunities.

The Corps has not been responsive enough to business owners, said Hamilton, president of the Lake Cumberland Association.

Differing views

Lindstrom, who heads the Corps district in charge of Lake Cumberland, said the Corps has worked to help ease the impact of the lower water.

The Corps quickly approved boat-ramp extensions and helped pay for the work, improved recreation areas, allowed two marinas to move to deeper water and cleaned up miles of shoreline, Lindstrom said.

It might also be possible to abate rent for some marinas, he said.

Lindstrom said the resolution didn't make clear what help businesses want, but he wants to meet with them. "I empathize with them," he said.

Not everyone agreed with the resolution, and there were differing views even among those who approved it.

Russell County Judge-Executive Mickey Garner said the resolution was not an attack on the Corps, but an attempt to get some money from the federal stimulus package to help marina operators.

Clinton County Fiscal Court rescinded its approval of the resolution, said Judge-Executive Lyle Huff.

Some people didn't want to take back the vote, but there was concern that supporting the resolution would hurt residents' chances of getting jobs on the project, Huff said.

A giant concrete wall

Many boaters have said they enjoy the lower water level at the lake, which is still a giant body of water, covering 38,000 surface acres.

But tourism hasn't fully recovered. High gas prices last year hurt tourism, and the troubled economy is creating concerns about the next summer tourist season.

The project to fix the dam will eventually allow the Corps to raise the lake level to its usual mark, but that won't happen this year.

Since January 2007, the Corps has kept the lake at 680 feet above seal level, about 40 feet below the normal summer mark.

Wolf Creek Dam was built in terrain that has caves and voids in the rock under the earthen part of the mile-long structure. Water is seeping through, creating a risk of failure.

The Corps started emergency repairs in 2007, injecting grout into the foundation of the dam to stem leaks. That has helped the structural integrity; the dam is safer now than it was, Lindstrom said.

Now, contractor Treviicos-Soletanche JV — a partnership of Italian and French companies — is gearing up to build a giant concrete wall inside the earthen part of the dam to seal off leaks.

The Corps arranged Tuesday's tour of the project.

Workers are installing equipment and building a low guide wall for the machine that will dig the deep trench for the wall — a 220-ton hydromill that has spinning wheels tipped with tungsten-carbide points.

Excavation is scheduled to begin next week for a test section of the wall, said David Hendrix, project manager for the Corps.

Work eventually will go on around the clock six days a week.

The wall will be 275 feet deep at some points and at least two feet thick. Building it will require 35,000 truckloads of concrete, Hendrix said.

The $341 million project will be done by the summer of 2012, and possibly sooner, said Ricardo Petrocelli, who heads the joint venture.

The Italian and French companies brought in about 200 of their employees, but subcontracts to provide drilling, concrete, excavating and other services could mean work for that many local people or more, Petrocelli said.