Rare species may stall Lake Cumberland refill
February 11, 2014 Share

Rare species may stall Lake Cumberland refill

Boaters may have to wait another year before Lake Cumberland is refilled to its level before an emergency draw-down seven years ago — and even then, the water level may not be exactly as it was.

An endangered fish — the duskytail darter — has reclaimed five miles of old habitat in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River that was uncovered during the draw-down so renovations could be done on the Wolf Creek Dam, federal officials said Wednesday.

And fully restoring the lake to its former summer recreational pool could doom those fish by flooding them out and forcing them into open water, where they would likely be eaten by predators, such as bass, said Lee Andrews, supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Kentucky.

“It may be Kentucky’s rarest fish,” he said of the 2.5-inch-long minnow relative.

The Army Corps of Engineers had been planning to restore water levels for the coming recreational season, after partially raising the pool last year as extensive dam repairs drew to a close. Now the Corps will have to consult with Fish and Wildlife on the darter.

“You’d think as it rises, the fish would swim back upstream,” said Don Getty, the Wolf Creek Dam project manager for the Corps.

But he said it’s not that simple, and the Corps must finish an environmental survey and recommend conservation actions to offset any loss of fish habitat.

“I’m not happy with it,” said Dennis Smith, general manager of Burnside Resort & Marina on Lake Cumberland. “We are having to change our whole business plan — what we can do, what we can’t do.”

While there has been plenty of water for recreation, aesthetically, getting back to a full pool is important for lake communities that rely on visitors and tourism.

“It makes a big difference whether you have water surrounding you vs. dried banks,” Smith said.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell called the situation “unacceptable,” saying: “The lower water level for the past few years has hurt the local economy. … 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.”

Alice Howell, a board member of the Sierra Club’s Kentucky chapter, said the two federal agencies were just doing their jobs, “which is making sure that our lakes and streams are healthy for both fish and humans.” She said McConnell should let the agencies “follow the best science before interjecting in the situation."

Getty said a decision won’t likely be made in time to refill the lake before summer, but added: “We just don’t know yet.”

While the fish are protected, Fish and Wildlife has authority to allow actions that could harm, harass or kill them.

“We have already worked with the Corps to determine a number of potential conservation measures that, when implemented, will minimize impacts to the duskytail darter,” Andrews said. “We will have a decision this year.”

Some people have suggested moving the fish, he said. But it needs specific habitat: shallow water over a gravel or rocky bottom. Other darters “may occupy all the habitat that is already there,” Andrews said.

Before dam repairs, the Corps would allow the lake surface to get as high as 723 feet above sea level. During dam repairs, it was drawn down more than 40 feet to 680 feet, causing problems for water intakes and leaving some marinas high and dry.

The Corps raised the level to 705 feet last summer. It is at 690 feet now, leaving room for storage of winter runoff, Getty said. It was intending to raise it back to 723 feet. That continues to be the goal, but the Corps may need to make “minor” operational changes in how it manages the lake, he added.

Andrews said his agency will work with the Corps to determine what water level allows for the most darter habitat to remain. But wiping out five miles would be “a fairly sizable impact.”

“Our goal is to maybe save some of these new (fish) occurrences,” he said.

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