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Tensions build over aging dam

The Baltimore Sun

BURKESVILLE, Ky. --Below the Wolf Creek Dam, which holds back the biggest manmade lake east of the Mississippi, residents joke that they are not worried about a breach but sleep in life jackets, just in case.

Above the dam, they jest that since the Army Corps of Engineers labeled the structure "high risk" in January and lowered the water in Lake Cumberland to 40 feet below its summer level, residents now have some of the best "mud front" property in the country.

A nervous sense of humor has taken hold in this area, famed for its trout fishing and million-dollar houseboats, as worries grow about the dam, a mile-long concrete and earthen behemoth that is leaking and showing signs of age.

"That's a lot of water," said Keith Riddle, the mayor and barber here, about the trillion gallons of water 10 miles upstream sitting behind the dam, enough to cover the state of Kentucky to a depth of 3 inches. Riddle described the town's four-hour evacuation plan, the sirens being installed in the area and the several thousand weather radios being distributed to warn residents of an emergency.

In Nashville, Tenn., about 280 miles down the Cumberland River, state and federal officials began holding weekly public meetings this month to quell fears after the corps said a worst-case rupture of the dam could inundate that city's downtown, causing more than $2 billion in damage.

Upstream, local operators of power, sewage and water treatment plants are warning of potential regional blackouts and service stoppages because many of their intake pipes running to the lake are nearly above water. Tourism officials are bracing for the economic impact of the lowered lake on a $150 million boating, fishing and vacation industry that draws more than 5 million visitors annually, more than double the number that visit Yellowstone National Park.

"All we're doing is trying to keep the boats afloat," said Arlie Baker, 69, at his boating club's ramp.

The situation is yet another unforeseen consequence of Hurricane Katrina. Corps officials said that while the aging dam's problems went back 40 years, the corps' determination of acceptable risk had changed because of lessons learned from the levee failures in New Orleans. Alarm was also heightened after outside engineers concluded that the risk of failure was much higher than the corps had originally stated.

"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," said Bill Peoples, a spokesman for the corps office in Nashville that runs the Wolf Creek Dam. Peoples said the dam was one of about 610 the corps oversaw, many of which were completed in the 1940s and 50s and were engineered to last about 50 years. Five other dams are ranked at the highest alert level, he said.

Completed by the corps in 1952, Wolf Creek Dam has deteriorated as water has seeped beneath the dam through porous limestone, eroding its foundation.

Peoples said it would take $309 million and about seven years to install a thick concrete wall in the earthen section of the dam, fill holes with grout and control erosion under the dam.

Though Lake Cumberland is renowned for its striper, bass, walleye and crappie fishing, it is the trout anglers who are most worried about the effect of the falling water level on fishing. Each year, the federal trout hatchery just below the dam produces more than a million trout, with about 825,000 making up the primary source for Kentucky lakes and streams and the rest going to Cherokee tribal lands in North Carolina and waters in northern Georgia.

If it rains too much, dam officials will have to keep releasing water to hold levels steady, which would change the temperature and oxygen levels downstream and could devastate the hatchery's fish.

"Really, in our wildest dreams, we never thought it would get like this," said David Hicks, the commodore of the Somerset Boat Club as he surveyed the muck surrounding stranded storage lockers and picnic tables that sat atop a small marooned dock.

Jeff Cress at Lee's Ford Marina said the rumors about the dam's problems might be the biggest threat to the economy of the region.

"You have people up in Cincinnati thinking this lake is drained," Cress said, alluding to the legions of Ohio vacationers who have regularly visited the lake. Local officials have emphasized that even at its current level, the lake was still one of the biggest in the state.

Seated with friends in a log cabin several miles downriver from the dam, Willis McClure said he was asked by dam officials to collect the phone numbers of residents who lived nearest the dam. As McClure's friends joked that he took the job to ensure his name was at the top of the list, he explained that having lived next to the dam all his life, he was confident in its strength.

Though worried about the cost of repairs, Shannon Thompson, a regular boater here, said local residents, many of whom live on remote farms accessed by roads that frequently washed out, were used to coping with the elements.

"Around here," Thompson said, "the typical response to 'See you tomorrow' is 'Lord willing and if the creek don't rise.'"

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