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Lake Level Arguments Run Deep

July 9, 2008

By Steve Vantreese, The Paducah Sun, Ky.

Jul. 9–Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley managers are releasing more water to go with the downstream flow — and against the wishes of some lakes area tourism interests.

Tourism groups and business people continue to claim that lowering lake levels in early summer creates risky boating conditions and undercuts the lakes’ value as a visitor attraction.

Lakes managers, meanwhile, say the drawdown schedule best cares for the area’s resources while achieving man’s purposes for the lakes.

The canal-linked reservoirs roughly maintain a summer pool level of 359 feet above sea level from about April 1 until just after the Fourth of July holiday. The lakes are gradually lowered with releases through Kentucky Dam and Barkley Dam from summer pool to reach winter pool of 354 feet — a 5-foot reduction — on or about Dec. 1.

The current level is of little consequence. In a month or so, however, the slow decline in the water level becomes a concern for recreational boat navigation. Shallower areas mean that propellers, outboard motor lower units and boat hulls draw nearer to obstacles such as tree stumps, inundated roadbeds or house foundations.

“If some visitors rent a boat, go out and tear up a prop, they’re upset and chances are they aren’t coming back,” said Greg Batts, owner of Prizer Point Marina and Resort on Lake Barkley. “When the water level gets down 21/2 feet below summer pool, it starts getting tricky for navigation.”

Barkley’s a pretty shallow lake, Batts said. At about 356 feet, the secondary channels, which boaters normally use for crossing the lake, start getting pretty tricky. When what used to be 6 feet of water is 3, a stump or other obstacle can be hit, he said.

“We’re at a peak of visitor activity here now until we approach the first week of August,” Batts said. “Then it’s gone. It’s like turning a faucet off. When the lake starts to get low, it’s over.”

Tourism forces long have clamored for extended periods of higher water on both lakes.

The Army Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Valley Authority have listened to the arguments and decided against extending the higher pool because:

–Environmentally, extending the higher water levels takes a toll on shoreline vegetation — buttonball bushes, which serve as nursery quarters for the new spawn of game fish species. Higher water hurts fish populations, biologists concluded after an experiment with a “stairstep drawdown” in 1993-94.

–Delaying the exposure of the shallowest mudflats retards growth of natural plants that are desirable to support migrating waterfowl during the fall and winter. Holding high water longer, in effect, pulls support for ducks and geese, biologists say.

–Holding more water reduces emergency storage capacity that could be needed, particularly in late summer or early fall, if a hurricane weather system moves up from the Gulf of Mexico and dumps heavy rains.

–Biologists say more water retention decreases flow rate and mixing and degrades water quality, especially in hot, late summer conditions.

–During the stairstep experiment, holding more water longer sacrificed power generation capability during July and August when it was most needed.

–Adverse impact on commercial navigation on the Ohio River may occur when more water was held back.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, has taken up the banner for the lakes area businesses, heeding a call from the Kentucky’s Western Waterland tourism group to press the corps and TVA to extend the higher water period.

Whitfield proposed a strategy to carry the summer pool period until Labor Day, but the lakes’ managing agencies recommended against it after re-evaluating past studies.

So, Whitfield decided to make his proposal a law. His “Lake Barkley Water Level Improvement Act” failed in 2007 to get out of a House subcommittee.

Michael Pape, Whitfield’s Hopkinsville office director, said the congressman still is working in Congress to extend the lakes’ summer pool, calling it a priority because the present drawdown schedule discourages tourism and compromises boating safety.

While the legislative campaign is bogged in Washington trenches, hope remains for another route, Pape said.

“Our strategy is to continue to push for legislation, but we’re also going to be putting together a stakeholders meeting with the groups that oppose the change,” Pape said. “We want to explain thoroughly why we need to extend the pool period, and we want to ask again why those who are against it most oppose it.

“We’d like to see summer pool continued through Labor Day, but we’d like to state our case and see what the opponents to this could live with,” Pape said.

Pape said Whitfield will seek another meeting with concerned groups in late August or early September, probably in a lakes’ area state park forum.

Mike Looney, the corps’ Lake Barkley resource manager at Lake City, said he could foresee making no changes to the water level schedules.

“The corps’ position is that we’ve made changes before, and based on biology and hydrology, the current system is the best we can do,” Looney said. “The real stumbling blocks are the environmental issues.”

Michele Edwards, Kentucky’s Western Waterland president, said, “This is something we’ve been working on for 30 years, and our members still feel like the schedule cuts off their season. The corps really has been bullheaded on this, the way I see it.”

Robert Walter, owner of Malcolm Creek Resort on Kentucky Lake for a bit over a year, has a shorter-term view of what he sees as a prevailing problem for lakes area businesses.

“The people who come here all are aware of the drawdown,” Walter said. “And when they start pulling water, it affects visitation. Holding pool to Labor Day would benefit the whole region.”

Steve Vantreese can be contacted at 575-8684.

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