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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- A long wait is about to end at Kentucky's Lake Cumberland. A project to repair the lake's dam is finished, and hopes, along with the water, are rising for the first time in six years.
There's something new flowing these days in the waters of Lake Cumberland -- something that got sucked out of it six years ago. As Carolyn Mounce of Somerset-Pulaski Co. Convention & Tourism explains, it's, "Optimism, oh yes, very optimistic that it's going to be a good year."
That's all because of something you can't see -- a just-completed 4,000-foot-long, 275-foot deep concrete wall built into the embankment of the earthen Wolf Creek Dam.
"It's a contiguous wall that ties in from the concrete portion of the dam and runs the full length of the embankment," said Bill Debruyn of the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2007, leaks detected at the dam caused the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the lake, to lower the water by 45 feet. It sparked a project that ended up costing nearly $600 million -- nearly twice as much as first thought. A big reason was that officials weren't exactly sure what they were getting into.
"A project had never been attempted on this scale anywhere in the world. And we were breaking new ground with many of the things we did. And, we did it successfully, but it came with a price," explained Project Manager Don Getty.
That wasn't the only price paid there. When the water level was lowered, it cost this area's businesses, particularly marinas, dearly. At the Lee's Ford Marina, the water at the dock used to be in one place, but they had to move it elsewhere, to deeper water. The cost of doing that and reconfiguring the entire marina ran about three-quarters of a million dollars. Now, with the water coming back up, they'll have to spend that much again to move it back."
Owner J.D. Hamilton says he estimates that lost business will end up costing him about $6 million. But, he says, he considers himself lucky, compared to the disaster faced by other marinas: "Eleven altogether. Six either went out of business or went into bankruptcy, which we're in Chapter 11 right now, or the last one is down 50 percent in sales and operating in the red."
"It impacted every marina on the lake. We all lost at least somewhere in that ballpark, between $150,000 and $250 thousand each, and that was a year, per year," John Meincken, the CFO of the Jamestown Marina, said.
The Army Corps of Engineers did let marinas out of their lease payments for one year, but they say it's not nearly enough. J.D. Hamilton compares it to the gulf oil spill: "In this situation, dead-on comparison, the federal government has an engineering problem...but there's been no compensation."
One thing everyone does agree on -- much of the drop in visitors from the usual 5 million a year to 4 million, was caused by a misperception that even state tourism officials like Hank Phillips have been trying to fight. "Rumors were rampant at the beginning," Phillips said, "that there was no water in the lake. So our role and the role we tried to perform was to get the truth out. And Lake Cumberland didn't go away and the fun you could have at Lake Cumberland didn't go away."
Since repairs to the dam were completed at the beginning of March, the water has already risen 18 feet. Plans are to let it rise another eight feet, and see if the wall is doing its job. If all goes well, it will be back to up its original level this time next year.
There is a silver lining in all of this -- vegetation that's appeared since the water's been lowered. As the water goes back up, that's expected to create a perfect habitat for fish. That, combined with the fact that the lake has been stocked with hundreds of thousands of primarily walleye and striped bass, is expected to make Lake Cumberland a fisherman's paradise."
Meincken says, "The fishing's going to be better than it ever has. That's going to be the biggest attraction, I think, for this lake."
"All of the fisherman are saying this will be one of the best fishing lakes in the United States," said Hamilton. It's hoped that will help fuel a resurgence for to the fourth most visited lake in the U.S., and biggest reservoir east of the Mississippi.
Mounce says, "We had people saying to us, 'We've been to Del Hallow, we've been to Laurel Lake, we have been down to Tennessee and their lakes. We're coming back this year, we're coming back to Cumberland."
Tourism revenue in Pulaski County actually went up when the lake was down -- that meant lots of work to promote other attractions in the area.