|By TIM THORNBERRY
JAMESTOWN, Ky. — Imagine a lake that encompasses 1,255 miles of shoreline, one that is spread across 65,530 acres, and one with a reservoir that ranks ninth in the United States in size with a capacity of 6.1 million acre-feet; that’s enough water to cover the entire state of Kentucky - 3 inches deep.
Now imagine the dam on the lake breaks and an unimaginable area of rural communities and farmland in two states is flooded. The scenario sounds like a movie-of-the-week feature; but in fact, the danger is real.
In late January of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) released word that repairs would start on Wolf Creek Dam, in Russell County, after independent studies classified the structure as “high risk” for failure.
Lake Cumberland, located in the south central part of the state, was created with the construction of Wolf Creek Dam by the ACE that originally began in 1941 but was not completed until approximately 10 years later.
The dam was built primarily as a means for flood control and the production of hydroelectric power. It is the 22nd largest dam in the United States, and cost $80.4 million to construct and it is estimated that the dam has prevented more than $500 million in flood damages since its construction. The lake also serves as a primary water source for many nearby communities.
It is somewhat ironic that the very kind of disaster the dam was meant to keep from happening could become reality if the dam fails.
“Public safety is our paramount concern,” said Lt. Col. Steven J. Roemhildt, ACE Commander, Nashville District. “Since March 2005, we have modified the operation of Lake Cumberland to reduce high lake levels; we are now further lowering the lake levels to reduce risk. We understand that this decision will adversely impact many people, communities, and businesses that rely upon Lake Cumberland for project purposes and other uses, but we must take this emergency action to reduce risk to the public and to the dam itself.”
State officials are concerned of the environmental and economical damage that could result from a prolonged repair of the dam or all out failure of the structure. Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher has established a group to study the total impact. State government officials have been combing the area listening to concerns from local officials and residents.
“The Corps of Engineers’ announcement regarding the condition of Wolf Creek Dam raises a serious challenge. I have asked members of my administration who have expertise in the areas potentially affected to develop a plan to mitigate the negative impact as much as possible,” said Fletcher. “For all those who live, work and visit the area, it is my hope that this project will be done as expeditiously as possible. Our primary concerns will be the safety of the citizens, the integrity of the Wolf Creek Dam, the protection of Lake Cumberland and the economic impact on local businesses.”
Some safety measures provided by the state so far include early warning system equipment to several communities in Russell, Cumberland, Clinton and Monroe Counties. Communities in each county will be provided a reverse 911 system, while a number of local citizens and businesses will be supplied with weather radios. Additionally, the counties will receive an upgrade to their 911 systems by installing “enhanced” 911 in each county. Enhanced 911 provides 911 dispatchers with caller information on 911 calls.
“It is critical that we provide local emergency personnel in these communities with the ability to communicate effectively with the public during an emergency,” said (Ret) Maj. Alecia Webb-Edgington, director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security. “Improving public safety is our number one goal as we work to implement a strategy based on preparedness for all emergencies, natural or man-made.”
Work is also underway on a boat ramp extension project at General Burnside Island, one of the two state parks located on the lake. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) is using rock to extend the ramp to the water so boaters will have lake access. The lake has been dropped to a level of 680 feet, which is 10 feet lower than the normal pool level during the winter and over 40 feet lower than the normal summer pool level.
The total bill for repairs could reach $309 million with a timeline that could take until 2014 depending on an aggressive work schedule and an already tight federal budget. The ACE has requested full funding for the project.
While safety is paramount, the economic impact could be detrimental. Regional tourism brings in an estimated $150 million annually to the four county area.
In a report issued by the ACE, visitors to the lake could be reduced by half during the restoration period.
“Impacts to recreation at Lake Cumberland will be severe, and the impacts vary with pool fluctuations. Economic impacts are greater in the summer than winter. With a summer pool at elevation 680, we estimate the projected impact is a 50 percent reduction in overall visitation which translates into a $23.6 million loss in direct sales, $8.5 million loss in personal income and a $38.4 million decline in trip spending within a 30 mile radius. There will be a $2.9 million loss in federal tax and a $4.6 million loss in state tax revenues,” the report stated.
The dam has undergone repairs before, in the 70s, for a leak with costs running $96 million. Of the 383 lakes controlled or maintained by the ACE, Lake Cumberland ranks 4th in the nation for the number of visitor hours.