BURNSIDE — Tourism interests in Lake Cumberland country are hoping for increased visitation as they head into the fifth summer season with a planned lower water level at the giant reservoir.
Visitor numbers dropped significantly after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quickly lowered the lake level in January 2007 as part of the process of fixing leaks at Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds the 101-mile-long lake.
The number of people who came to the lake in 2010 topped 4 million for the first time since 2006 — the year before
the drawdown — but was still well below the 4.4 million mark from that year, according to the corps.
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Tourism officials and marina operators said they had good response from people at trade shows earlier this year, and the lake is expected to be busy this Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer boating season.
Many are keeping their fingers crossed that the recovery will continue throughout the summer.
One wild card, however, is the price of gas.
Many people travel to the lake from places four hours or more to the north, including Ohio, Indiana and Northern Kentucky, so high prices at the pump could cause them to stay closer to home or come to the lake less often.
"We could have a good year if these gas prices don't get out of hand," said James Flatt, manager of Indian Hills Resort Alligator Dock 2 in Russell County.
Mike McBride, a Columbus, Ohio, businessman who has been a regular visitor for more than 40 years, said last week he had figured it would cost him $800 to $900 for gas, food and lodging to pull his boat down for a weekend.
That cost has figured in his decision not to make the trip, though his children's busy schedule also is a factor.
"We're going to elect to boat 10 miles from our home" on a smaller lake, McBride said.
Other lake users, however, said the prices won't keep them away.
"We've been dedicated to the lake," said Herman Margolen, a Northern Kentucky contractor. "It's a vacation. You expect to spend a little more."
Tourism promoters noted that gas prices also have come down recently. There also is a potential for people who might go out of state to come to the lake instead.
"People are looking forward to coming to the lake," said Carolyn Mounce, head of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Before 2007, the usual summer water level at the lake was 723 feet above sea level, creating a surface area of 50,000 acres.
The corps dropped the surface level to 680 feet in January 2007 and has held it at that mark since, running water through the giant turbines that generate electricity at the dam, or opening gates, to reduce the lake level.
The lake rose to more than 720 feet in recent weeks because of heavy rains and is still well above 700 this weekend, much higher than it has been the last four Memorial Days.
However, the plan is to draw it back down to 680 feet.
The corps had been dropping the level a foot a day in recent days, said Brett Call, acting resource manager for the lake.
It could take three or four weeks to drop the water level back to 680 feet, Call said.
There has been some concern about more debris on the lake, such as logs washed in from tributaries by high rain, or picked up off the banks by rising water.
However, the situation has improved in recent days as wind pushed debris off the lake and the water level dropped.
"It works its way out," said Bill Jasper, president of Lake Cumberland State Dock in Russell County.
Dam undergoing repairs
The corps has been keeping the lake level lower than the traditional summer mark in order to reduce pressure on the dam during repairs.
The dam, finished in the early 1950s, was built in terrain that is shot through with caves and fissures. Water seeps through those channels under the foundation of the earthen part of the mile-long structure, creating the potential for failure.
The corps is overseeing a massive project to build a thick concrete wall the length of the earthen part of the dam, deep into the underlying rock, to cut off leak channels.
Contractors also injected liquid cement into voids in and below the dam to limit leaks. The corps has said that worked in most spots, improving the stability of the structure, but it was less successful at the spot where the earthen dam wraps around the concrete part of the dam across the Cumberland River, called Critical Area 1.
That glitch has helped drive up the estimated cost to fix the dam — $584 million at last count — and pushed back the completion date.
That date is now December 2013, said Lee Roberts, a spokesman for the corps.
That means the water level might not return to the traditional summer mark of 723 feet until 2014.
However, Roberts said on Friday that the contractor fixing the dam plans to try a new approach to filling the holes at Critical Area 1, using a gravity flow to put in grout instead of injecting it under pressure as before.
That work could start next week, he said.
"That's good news," Roberts said.
A big, muddy hole?
The decision to reduce the water level in 2007, and media coverage of the emergency decision, created a perception among many potential visitors that the lake was a muddy hole without adequate water for boating and skiing.
That was clearly not correct. At the 680-foot level, the lake has about 38,000 surface acres, making it the third-largest in the state.
However, the reduction did make some popular coves inaccessible. The drawdown and news reports caused many people to stay away from the lake in 2007.
"It scared a lot of people away. They thought there wasn't enough water down here," said Joe Rinehart, an Ohio farmer who keeps a boat at Lee's Ford Resort Marina in Pulaski County.
Overall visitor numbers for 2007 dropped more than 10 percent from the year before, and some tourism businesses said revenue dropped 30 percent or more.
"It's an economic disaster," said J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee's Ford Resort Marina.
Dropping the lake level left London Dock, which was in a headwater area, in shallow water. People stopped renting slips to moor boats and stopped fishing in the area, so sales of gas, bait and ice fell off, said Donnie Ellison, who had been the manager.
In the end, there wasn't enough revenue to pay his salary, and the owner sold the dock, Ellison said.
"It bankrupted," he said.
The new owner has moved the dock to an area controlled by the U.S. Forest Service, but it is not yet open, Ellison said.
Running out of money
Ed Slusser, the owner of what was once called Alligator Dock 1, in Russell County, moved the facility to an area of the lake with deeper water.
Slusser said he spent $1.5 million to build new facilities and install infrastructure such as utilities. The government didn't reimburse him those costs; he ran out of money and had to sell out in April.
Slusser had bought the marina after selling his earlier business, a dental lab. He lost that investment and now, at 57, he's looking for a job.
"That's not where I'd planned to be," he said.
The owners of Lake Cumberland State Dock in Russell County bought Slusser's marina and are operating it under the name Wolf Creek Marina.
A spike in gas prices in 2008 and the economic downturn in 2009 have also hurt business at the lake.
Barry Begley and his wife, Tina, own LakePointe Resort in Russell County. He said they've operated at a loss the last few years.
"We can't continue at this pace," he said.
People promoting the lake still hear the occasional comment about a lack of water but say that is not a major problem anymore.
Many lake users would like to see a higher water level, but others have said they like the lower level, in part because it reduces debris.
"I felt like it was the best boating I'd ever seen down here," Rinehart said.
Lake businesses reported varying outlooks for this season. Some owners said they're not confident things will be much better than last year, but others said they are seeing better numbers.
Flatt said his phones were "ringing off the wall" until gas prices approached $4 a gallon, and reservations look good.
"I'm pretty optimistic that things are going to get better," he said.
Jasper, president of State Dock, said revenue at the marina was up 15 percent in 2010 over the year before.
The numbers aren't back up to pre-2007 levels, but rental activity is up, and he anticipates further improvement this year.
"It's coming back around," Jasper said. "I think it's going to be a good year."