BASS Times: Cumberland's Low Levels Not Tragic As Expected

Repair of an important dam was feared to degrade water quality and kill fish

With lower water because of dam repair now into its second year, guides insist fishing on Lake Cumberland hasn't declined nearly as much as once feared — or many still believe.

"I haven't really found that the lake level has changed the fishing much," said striper guide Gerald Bates. "If anything, it's made it more consistent because the lake level has been constant and not fluctuating," Bates said.

Likely the fisheries in the reservoir and the river below have been sustained because a drought that accompanied the first year of drawdown did not cause the water quality decline and subsequent massive kill that resource managers had feared.

"We documented low dissolved oxygen here and there, but no fish kills were reported," explained Bill Reeves, Tennessee fisheries chief, in late 2007.Bass, sunfish, sauger and other species, Reeves added, seemed to be all right in what traditionally has been a "cool-water system all the way to Nashville."

Until that year, water that helped keep the river cool was stored in Kentucky's Lake Cumberland and discharged as needed. But the Army Corps of Engineers began drawing the lake down 43 feet (about 10 feet below normal winter pool), to 37,000 acres, or 75 percent of its normal pool. The move was made to begin repair of Wolf Creek Dam, a project that could take several years and will cost an estimated $309 million. 

Foundations of the 5,738-foot earthen and concrete dam were eroding, prompting the Corps to rank it in the highest category for risk of failure and urgency of repairs. Lowering the water facilitates repair, takes pressure off the structure and reduces risk that it will break.

"Failure of the Wolf Creek Dam would be catastrophic," according to an environmental impact statement. "Loss of life is expected to exceed 100 lives. Economic losses are estimated in the billions, with damages as distant as Nashville, Tennessee, expected to exceed $2 billion."

Consequences of the drawdown to prevent such a tragedy, the Corps and other experts predicted, were likely to be fish kills and hatchery damage, as well as degradation of drinking water quality, navigation problems, and reduced electrical power production.

Add in what the Corps terms a "severe hydrologic drought" and prospects did not look good for water quality and fisheries in Lake Cumberland, as well as the river and reservoirs below it.

Ironically, though, dry weather might have helped keep lake waters tolerable, especially for stripers, walleye and smallmouth bass, according to the Cumberland River Compact.

"The low rainfall during the spring and early summer preserved much of the cool-water habitat in the lake and lessened the chance of a fish kill in the fall," the coalition reported. "In effect, the low rainfall allowed more of the cool, oxygenated, winter-stored water to remain."

Lower flow into the tailwaters, however, allowed water temperatures to rise into the 70s, which can be fatal to the trout that live there. In anticipation of a die-off, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources liberalized creel limits, encouraging people to keep more fish.

But a funny thing occurred. "The fish kills didn't happen," said Dave Dreeves, a trout specialist. "I think that the fish moved upstream because if the fish had died, we'd have seen them."

In 2008, electrofishing catch rates declined. What will happen in 2009 and the years ahead, as work on Wolf Creek Dam continues, remains to be seen.

But Tennessee's Reeves is optimistic on at least one point: "There's a new level of communication and cooperation with the Corps that never existed before."

What about the fish?

With Cumberland being held 10 feet below winter pool indefinitely and downstream Dale Hollow Reservoir possibly lower than normal for at least part of each year, what can anglers expect?

"The hot spots that anglers are used to won't be there anymore," said Benjy Kinman, Kentucky fisheries chief. "There will be new hot spots that you have not seen before. You're really talking about a whole new lake."

Some of those new hot spots likely have been created by state biologists, who have sunk trees, brushpiles and fish attractors on Lake Cumberland.

Kentucky also has plans to divert its large­mouth bass stockings from other lakes to Cumberland, in anticipation of poorer spawns because of the loss of shallow water habitat.

Smallmouth likely will not be affected much by the lower water at Cumberland and possibly Dale Hollow because they spawn deeper and spend much of their time in offshore, rocky areas.

"Lake Cumberland could produce some whopper smallmouth and other fish in the coming years because shad and other baitfish have fewer places to hide," reported the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

And the striped bass fishery, for which Cumberland is famous?

"The fish are going to adjust," said Mark Wasiloski of Striper Time Fishing Guide Service. "If the lower water level means warmer water, the fish are going to go deeper, but the main channel is 180 feet deep. There's plenty of lake left."

Fishing, tourism suffer at Lake Cumberland

As the waters receded on Lake Cumberland, resort and marina owners and the state of Kentucky spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to extend launch ramps and shift docks to deeper waters. Yes, Cumberland might be losing much of its shallow cover, they knew, but the lake still would be at 75 percent capacity, with plenty of water for both fish and anglers.

Unfortunately, exaggerated and inaccurate media scare stories contributed to a 22 percent decline in business during the first summer of drawdown.

Bill Kohn, general manager of the Jamestown Resort, told The Lane Report, a Kentucky business publication, that media reports hurt his business dramatically.

"We've had cancellations because people saw reports that there's no water in the lake, and we lost two major early season fishing tournaments to Dale Hollow Lake because people thought we couldn't get boats into the water. We could have handled those boats with no problem, but people believed the reports."

Unfortunately, the situation hasn't improved since that first summer. With the added weight of a slow economy hurting marinas and other businesses even more, Reps. Hal Rogers and Ed Whitfield recently introduced a bill into Congress to provide assistance. If passed, it would suspend lease payments for marina owners until higher water levels are restored and reimburse for losses in revenue.