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In Deep Water

 Water allocation study could result in McCreary County paying for Lake Cumberland water storage in the Big South Fork River

Photo by Greg Bird McCreary County Water District intake at Big Creek.

Photo by Greg Bird
McCreary County Water District intake at Big Creek.

Most residents of McCreary County probably view themselves as river folks-taking pride in the Cumberland and Big South Fork Rivers, not seeing themselves as an integral part of Lake Cumberland.

However, when the current U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Cumberland Water Storage Allocation Study is completed, McCreary County will be required to pay for permanent storage of “lake” water in its Big South Fork River-water currently pooling there free of charge.   In addition, McCreary County and ten other municipal/industrial water users will be required to make annual payments to help with operation, maintenance, repair, rehabilitation, and restoration costs for the Wolf Creek Dam impounding Lake Cumberland.  Although the requirement for payments by water users for future repairs to the dam would be capped at a rate of less than one percent of the total, payment for future repairs could still be hefty.  Recent repairs completed in 2013 totaled a whopping $600 million.

So how did McCreary County get drawn into paying for water storage from Lake Cumberland?  According to Project Manager Loren McDonald, the McCreary County intake for municipal water is at the confluence of Big Creek-at the very edge of the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area.  Normal operations of Lake Cumberland affect the Big South Fork Cumberland River all the way past Roaring Paunch Creek.  If water was held at the top of the flood control pool, which rarely occurs, impact from the Lake could be seen even beyond Devil’s Jump.  Because Lake Cumberland affects the McCreary County intake point at Big Creek, the USACE designates this portion of the river as part of Lake Cumberland and claims authority to enforce regulations in regard to water storage/usage from Lake Cumberland.

When Congress approved Wolf Creek Dam in the 1930s, it did not designate the supplying of water as one of the dam’s authorized purposes.  Authorized purposes for the lake were limited to flood control and generation of hydroelectric power.  However, after the dam was completed in the 1950s, the need for municipal and industrial water throughout the area grew.  Congress agreed to allow the supplying of water as long as the dam and lake’s authorized purposes were not significantly impacted.  According to McDonald, the Clean Water Act of 1958 requires the agency to conduct reallocation studies evaluating the impact of supplying water on the authorized purposes of hydroelectric power and flood control.  In addition, reallocation studies must determine the current amount of water storage needed by each municipal or industrial user and how much water storage will be needed by each user in twenty to thirty years.  McDonald explained the current reallocation study will be the first completed for Lake Cumberland and will be instrumental in determining how much each user will pay for water storage. She noted Lake Cumberland water users are the only users on the Cumberland River Basin who do not already have signed water storage agreements and are the only users not paying for use of the water storage.

The eleven users affected by the study and resulting fees are:  McCreary County, Burnside, Monticello, Somerset, Jamestown, Albany, General Burnside State Park, fish hatchery, Woodson Bend Resort, Kingsford Charcoal, and an East KY Power Cooperative power plant.  McDonald indicated industries are treated the same as municipalities in the study but differ in that industries typically need more water storage capacity allotted to them.

Each of the eleven users, including McCreary County, have received letters of intent from the USACE outlining the allocation study and cost sharing requirements.  The letter explains the one-time storage fee (payable over thirty years) based on the amount of hydro power lost due to water storage and the annual fees for operations, maintenance, and repairs to the dam.   Completion of the reallocation study is expected in December 2018, and the Corps will accept open inquiries and comments throughout the process.  An official public comment period is expected in the spring of 2018 with the scoping notice expected within the next six months.

Although the cost sharing requirements will most likely result in higher water bills for consumers, USACE Nashville District Commander Lt. Col. Stephen F. Murphy defended the study in a recent commentary.

“Completing this study will give 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.”  Murphy also stated the study will allow for new users and increases in existing withdrawal capacity for current users.

McCreary County Water District Superintendent and Rural Water Association President Steve Owens is expected to release more information in the near future.

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