Little fish is causing big delays on raising lake level

Posted February 5, 2014 at 2:40 pm


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A little fish with a big name is causing a lot of grief for boaters and fishing enthusiasts and especially for owners and operators of the commercial marinas on Lake Cumberland.

The Duskytail darter, a small minnow sized fish, has forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to announce last week that the discovery of the species will likely mean that Lake Cumberland will once again be raised no higher than a maximum pool elevation of 705 feet above sea level.

That news was disappointing to many last week who had been expecting to hear from the Corps that the approaching summer season would see the elevation of Lake Cumberland raised to at least 715 feet and possibly even hear of plans to see the lake being taken to a elevation that is considered to be full summer pool, or 723 feet.

The Duskytail darter, which is seldom found to exceed two and one-half inches in length, was discovered during a species survey report on December 11, 2013.

The species was found to be present in a five mile section of stream habitat in the headwaters region of the lake.

According to a press release from the Corps of Engineers received by the Clinton County News last week, the fish is currently on the endangered species list.

At issue is the current level of Lake Cumberland, which has been greatly reduced in the past several years, a measure that was deemed necessary as an emergency draw down procedure while repairs were being made to stop leaks in the Wolf Creek Dam.

During that emergency draw down, the level of Lake Cumberland was taken as low as 680 feet for a summer pool, but has been gradually raised after the completion of the repair work.

Last summer, the lake was allowed to be operated at 705 feet, about halfway between the low pool of 680 feet, and the normal summer operating level of 723 feet.

The species survey was completed as a required compliance commitment by the Crops as part of the Record of Decision for the Wolf Creek Dam/Lake Cumberland Environmental Impact Statement related to the emergency draw down of the lake, according to last week’s press release.

At issue is the normal habitat for the small fish, which is normally found in the streams the flow into Lake Cumberland, and with the lower lake levels, those areas where the fish normally lived became too shallow for habitat, moving the species downstream.

The darter normally lives in the streams only, and apparently isn’t able to survive in deeper waters where it would likely be eaten by other fish, such as bass.

If and when the level of Lake Cumberland is once again raised to normal levels, it would mean flooding the areas where the darter is currently living, possibly resulting in the killing of the fish in those areas.

Don Getty, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District project manager for the Wolf Creek Dam Safety Rehabilitation Project, explained the predicament to the Clinton County News.

“These fish were in headwater stream(s) prior to the draw down. The Duskytail darter is a stream fish, so we don’t expect it to reside in the lake. It was found in our survey in free flowing reaches exposed by the lake draw down,” Getty said.

“For the purposes of the Endangered Species Act, it doesn’t matter if it was there before or not. If by raising the lake, we cause a ‘Take’ of the darter, then we have to react accordingly,” Getty noted. “In this case, it is requiring us to enter Formal Consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

“We are working closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine an appropriate course of action including what conservation measures could be implemented to minimize any potential impacts to this species,” said Lt. Col. John L. Hudson, Nashville District commander. “The lake will operate this coming recreation season at about 25 feet higher than when construction was ongoing at Wolf Creek Dam, which will enable the same access to the lake and its significant recreational opportunities as the public enjoyed last year. We are working in close consultation with the Service to ensure our actions are protective of the endangered species and its habitat as required by the Endangered Species Act.”

Last week’s announcement by the Corps of Engineers resulted in a firestorm of opposition, especially from government leaders on both the state and national level.

One of the first comments to be unleashed came from Jeff Hoover, who represents much of the area that Lake Cumberland covers, including Clinton and Russell County.

Hoover (R-Jamestown), who serves as the Republican Floor Leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives, serves the 83rd District.

“Our local economy, while it has been able to weather the last few years while Wolf Creek Dam has been repaired, has experienced a downturn because of lower water levels in Lake Cumberland,” Hoover said. “Now our local businesses are being asked once again to allow their bottom line to suffer. I’m disappointed by this turn of events, and I pledge to work with Congressman Rogers and my fellow legislators in the House and Senate to encourage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a solution beneficial to our tourism industry as quickly as possible.”

Kentucky’s U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, also quickly weighed in on the situation, also releasing a statement last week to the Clinton County News.

“The water level at Lake Cumberland has been and continues to be a major concern for many in the community, and today’s announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is unacceptable, McConnell said. “The lower water level for the past few years has hurt the local economy, due to a decrease in the amount of visitors to the popular recreational area. I urge the Army Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife to reconsider this decision and I will contact both agencies immediately to express the concerns of those in the community.”

U.S. Representative Ed Whitfield, who represents Clinton County as a party of his 1st Congressional District, also issued a statement regarding the plans to delay the raising of the lake level on Lake Cumberland.

“The bloated bureaucracy that exists under the Obama Administration is once again acting to the detriment of Kentuckians. When the Corps first began construction on the Wolf Creek Dam cutoff wall, they made assurances that local businesses, lake levels, and marina owners would not be impacted,” Whitfield said. “Not only did the Corps not fulfill their word on those matters, they were delayed in finishing construction and now are refusing to raise the lake levels to normal pool.”

On Monday, Whitfield and McConnell joined forces with U.S. Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, in writing a joint letter to Lt. Col. John Hudson, the Division Commanding General of the Nashville District Corps of Engineers and Daniel M. Ashe, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We urge your agencies to immediately collaborate . . . in a manner that would allow for restoring the higher water levels on which the local community relies. It is critical that Lake Cumberland be able to raise water levels adequate to support tourism prior to the peak season in 2014. It is well past time for the lake to return to its full capacity,” the letter stated.

That letter also pointed out that during the drastic emergency draw down of Lake Cumberland while dam repairs were being completed, many small businesses were damaged and many local government agencies had to lower or move water intake systems.