Commentary: Corps working to ensure storage rights for Lake Cumberland water users
February 12, 2016 Share

Commentary: Corps working to ensure storage rights for Lake Cumberland water users

By Lt. Col. Stephen Murphy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District commander

SOMERSET, Ky. – A recent article in the Commonwealth Journal alleged that I said (in the author’s words) that water users around Lake Cumberland would soon have to dig a well or take a bucket to the creek to get water as the result of an ongoing Army Corps of Engineers water supply storage reallocation study. The Commonwealth Journal article titled “Corps plans to begin charging for lake water” was in response to a letter I recently sent to municipal and industrial water supply users drawing from Lake Cumberland. I genuinely appreciate the concern that the article represents but the misrepresentation of my tone and of the project’s intended benefit troubles me, so I wanted to respond explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing and the benefit to us all.

It goes without saying that the Corps understands the importance of Lake Cumberland’s water to the many who use it. This recognition influences how we serve the public as well as enforce federal law, in this case the Water Supply Act of 1958. The letter I sent to Lake Cumberland water users recently was intended to update the recipients on the status of the Cumberland Water Storage Reallocation Study. The goal of the study is to formalize and define water use at Lake Cumberland over the next 20 years in order to ensure the project can meet the changing needs of the region within the authorities given by Congress. A reallocation study also allows for new users and increases in existing withdrawal capacity for current users.

Lake Cumberland water supply users are the only municipal and industrial users out of all the Corps Cumberland River basin long-term storage projects who have not signed water storage agreements and who are not paying for the use of this storage. Completing this study will give water supply users a permanent right to utilize storage in Lake Cumberland, provide a reliable source of water to meet present and future needs, and allow the Corps to issue easements to accommodate existing water supply intakes.

Wolf Creek Dam was originally built to protect American citizens from the near-cyclical floods that ravaged the region causing massive loss of life and property damage. Competed in 1951, the dam’s primary purposes are flood risk management and the production of hydroelectric power. Just last year, the Nashville District’s system of 10 dam projects prevented an estimated $269 million in flood damages with Wolf Creek Dam accounting for more than half of that amount. Wolf Creek Dam also produces over a third of the 3.4 million megawatt hours of hydroelectric power of the district’s 10 dams (nine of these produce hydropower) on the Cumberland River, comparable to the power required by a city roughly the size of Nashville.

The benefits of the project are undeniable but they are also not free. Increasing demands on water at Corps projects led Congress to authorize the Corps of Engineers to accommodate municipal and industrial water supply in its reservoirs. However, the authority came with the caveat that the water supply users must share in the costs of maintaining such an incredibly valuable project and that the usage could not have a significant impact on the existing and primary authorized purposes (flood risk management and hydropower).

Water in the reservoir is not unlimited. The reallocation study involves pool simulations that will help determine the economic, environmental and social benefits of the proposed reallocation of storage for water supply as well as the lost hydropower revenues. The study will also determine the amount of storage in the reservoir that is and will be utilized to meet the users’ current and future withdrawals. Once completed, a report will be produced and then released for public comment. Progress is underway as the Corps has already awarded a contract to an architect-engineer firm to assess the projected future water supply needs of the communities, who are currently using Lake Cumberland for water storage, as well as to investigate the cost of alternative water sources to ensure Lake Cumberland is the least costly source of water for each community. Upon completion of the future demands assessment, the Corps will share it with the users to capture their comments, with the goal of ensuring we are accurately accounting for the users’ water supply needs.

The proposed reallocation of water in Lake Cumberland from a currently authorized purpose (e.g., hydropower pool) to water supply is approved by the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. If approved, currently scheduled for December 2018, the water supply users may then execute an agreement with the United States government, which includes payment of a one-time fee for permanent storage as well as payment of a percentage of the annual operations, maintenance, repair, rehabilitation and replacement costs for Wolf Creek Dam that are proportional to the amount of water storage required.

This reallocation study and the Corps requested letter of intent will help ensure that Wolf Creek Dam and Lake Cumberland will continue to provide the incredible flood risk management benefits, green hydropower and water supply well into the future.