Low water sure to drain business on Ky. lake as costly dam project begins

JAMESTOWN, Ky. (AP) – Rollie Vonlinger looked sadly across Lake Cumberland at some of the fishing spots he has hit over the past 30 years. It is going to be hard to get to some of those spots from now on, because the boat ramp he normally uses no longer reaches the water.

“It’s enough to want to make you cry,” said Vonlinger, who comes from Danville, about 55 miles away, to fish on the biggest manmade lake east of the Mississippi.

To relieve pressure on a dangerously weakened dam and avert a catastrophic collapse, federal engineers are lowering the water on Lake Cumberland, leaving boat ramps, marinas and swimming areas high and dry.

Vonlinger and other fishermen wonder how they will get their boats out on the water. And businesses that depend on the lake, which draws 5 million visitors each year, worry their fortunes will drop with the water line.

The 63,000-acre lake is held back by the concrete-and-earthen Wolf Creek Dam, 258 feet high and nearly a mile long. The dam was built in the 1940s and ’50s about 150 miles northeast of Nashville, Tenn., to provide hydroelectric power and control devastating flooding along the Cumberland River.

The project also created a tourist economy in what was once an impoverished part of the South, with the lake attracting nearly twice as many people per year as Yellowstone National Park.

The problem is that water has been seeping under the dam and eroding the limestone on which the concrete rests. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided it requires $300 million in emergency repairs, warning that a failure would send a wall of water into several small Kentucky and Tennessee cities and kill at least 100 people, harm more than 11,000 structures and cause $3 billion in damage.

The plan to drop the lake by 40 feet from its summer level of 720 feet above sea level, announced somewhat suddenly in January, sent a shiver though the region’s booming businesses, who fear the low water could cut the number of summertime visitors.

Every restaurant, hotel and motel, bait shop, marina, houseboat rental business, campsite, boat builder and real estate agency that depends on lake tourism stands to be affected by the repair project, which is expected to take seven years.

While the dam is not in danger of imminent collapse, the levee failures in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 have made the Corps more cautious, according to Lt. Col. Steven J. Roemhildt, commander of the Corps’ Nashville District.

With only a few days’ notice, the Corps pulled the plug on the lake, forcing business owners along the lake’s 1,000 miles of shoreline to scramble to rearrange boat docks that would be otherwise stuck in shallow water.

Heavy trucks have moved into an area near the dam, and workers have begun boring holes into the earth and pouring a runny concrete, called grout, into the underground gaps. It is the third time since the 1960s that the Corps has worked to stop serious seepage through the underground limestone, or karst, which is prone to sinkholes, caverns and underground streams.

At Alligator II, a large marina, a crew of five men was busy moving a long section of dock that served as a mooring to dozens of fancy houseboats, some nearly 80 feet long with patio furniture, screen doors and stainless-steel barbecue grills. Some owners pay up to $5,000 a year to dock there.

“It’s not just going to affect the docks. It’s going to affect every business that has anything to do with the lake,” said Mark Bloyd, a marina employee whose crew was using a winch to lift one of the marina’s 7,000-pound concrete anchors and move the dock more than 20 yards out.

Business owners estimate there will be 20,000 fewer surface acres of water to boat on this summer, and they are bracing for an estimated $23.6 million loss in direct sales in the peak season, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I’ve got people calling right and left. I’ve got people with reservations calling, thinking they should cancel because they think we’re not going to have any water,” said James Flatt, owner of the Alligator II dock.

The project could also lead to large-scale fish kills, because keeping the water level low will raise the temperature of the water in the Cumberland River below the dam, threatening cold-water fish species like the brown and rainbow trout raised at a nearby federal fish hatchery, Roemhildt said.

Some marina operators are hoping for the best. One of the biggest marinas, Lee’s Ford Resort, has 900 boat slips and had to move some docks.

“I think when folks get over the thought that there’s not going to be any water and they see there’s plenty of water, all those fears will go away,” said Jeff Cress, marina manager.