SOMERSET — Officials are making plans to raise the water level in Lake Cumberland to near normal this summer, buoying hopes for increased visitation after six tourist seasons of below-normal water levels because of leaks at Wolf Creek Dam.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday that a contractor is on target to finish a massive repair project on the dam by spring. The Corps had earlier estimated it would take until December 2013 to finish the $594 million project, meaning the lake level wouldn't return to normal until the summer of 2014.
With work ahead of schedule, the Corps is making plans to raise the lake level this summer, the agency said Thursday. Still, no final decision about raising the lake level will be made until after the agency and outside experts review whether the repairs have stabilized the dam, according to the Corps.
Thursday's announcement was welcome news for businesses that depend on the giant lake, which generates millions of "visitor days" a year as the centerpiece of the regional tourism economy.
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"It's the beginning of the recovery," said J.D. Hamilton, owner of Lee's Ford Marina Resort in Pulaski County. "It starts to bring the lake back to the lake we all knew."
The Corps, which operates the 101-mile long lake, made an emergency decision in January 2007 to quickly lower the water level after engineers said the dam was at high risk for failure.
The dam, finished in the early 1950s, was built in terrain that is shot through with caves and fissures. Water seeping through those channels under the foundation of the earthen part of the mile-long structure created the potential for failure.
The lake level is usually 723 feet above sea level in the summer. The Corps dumped enough water in early 2007 to reduce the level to 680 feet, and has kept it there since while repairing the dam.
The move shook tourism interests and local governments. The lower water left many boat ramps out of water, requiring upgrades; cities had to lower their water intakes, and marinas spent millions to move their docks and make other adjustments.
The drawdown also created a perception among many potential visitors that the lake wouldn't have adequate water for boating and skiing. That was wrong — the lake is still the third-largest in Kentucky even at the lower level — but overall visitation dropped by more than 10 percent in the 2007 tourist season, and some businesses reported revenue declines of 30 percent.
Visitation has not returned to 2006 levels.
Hamilton said the federal Small Business Administration gave him a loan based on a finding that the drawdown had created a disaster.
There were 11 commercial marinas on the lake in early 2007. Six of those either went out of business, sought bankruptcy protection or are operating in the red, Hamilton said.
The Corps moved quickly to begin injecting liquid cement into voids in the dam in 2007, and hired a European contractor to install a thick concrete barrier wall inside the length of the earthen section of the dam to cut off leaks.
The Corps installed a concrete barrier in part of the dam in the 1970s, but it didn't cover the entire earthen section and didn't go deep enough into the rock below to cut off all the seepage channels.
The Corps said the new barrier wall should be done by early spring. There will be some other work still to be done, but finishing the wall is the key to raising the water level, which will also require sufficient rainfall.
If engineers give the okay, the plan is to let the lake fill up to a level of 700 to 705 feet above sea level this summer, according to the Corps news release.
The reason for the incremental increase is to see how the repaired dam reacts to the higher level before raising the lake further, said Don Getty, the Corps manager on the repair project.
The Corps has installed extensive monitoring equipment inside the dam to measure indicators of leaks and stability.
If the dam performs as expected and passes another safety review at 705 feet, the plan is to raise the lake to its traditional summer level without stopping at another increment, Getty said in the news release.
Lt. Col. James A. DeLapp, commander of the Corps division that includes Lake Cumberland, said in the news release that the agency had pushed to finish the repair project as quickly as possible.
More importantly than the potential boost to recreation, DeLapp said, finishing the dam repairs will make the dam safer — a pressing concern in downstream communities.
It will also improve the Corps' ability to generate power at the dam and reduce the environmental impacts of low water, DeLapp said.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said in a news release that DeLapp called him personally Thursday to report the barrier wall will be complete soon. Rogers called that wonderful news, and commended DeLapp for bringing "renewed vigor" to the project.
"Our marinas, local businesses, and local lake enthusiasts have been patient, suffering business lows due to the low pool levels at Lake Cumberland and continuous delays in construction at the dam," Rogers said. "Now it's time to spread the word, Lake Cumberland is open for business."
Hamilton echoed that sentiment, saying he hopes the state will help with a marketing campaign for the lake.