LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Southern Kentucky marina operator J.D. Hamilton is hoping for better times now that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to raise the water level in Lake Cumberland this summer as a nearly $600 million dam repair project starts winding down.
But it will take several years to fully recover from the economic setbacks caused by the lowering of the recreational haven, said Hamilton, who filed for bankruptcy protection as his debts piled up and his income languished during the work on Wolf Creek Dam.
Businesses relying on the lake suffered through six summer seasons of below-normal water levels that hurt tourism.
"It's the beginning of the recovery for us," Hamilton said by phone Friday of the Corps' plans to raise the lake's water level by about 20 feet this summer. "It'll be a game changer getting the water back and having this project over."
The Corps said that a contractor installing a massive barrier wall — a crucial part of the $594 million repair project — has progressed faster than expected. Workers are on pace to finish the wall by early spring, well ahead of the prior expected completion date of December 2013.
As a result, the Corps said it expects to raise the lake's water level for the coming summer boating and fishing season to a level of 700 to 705 feet above sea level. That's still below the usual summer peak level of 723 feet before work to reinforce the nearly mile-long dam.
But it's a marked improvement from the approximately 680-foot lake level since early 2007, when the Corps lowered the lake by 40 feet to ease pressure on the leaking dam. The repairs have also consisted of filling fissures in the dam with liquid cement.
Before raising the level, a safety team will review the new barrier wall to ensure it meets safety standards.
Federal officials warned that a failure of Wolf Creek Dam could flood towns and cities down the Cumberland River in Kentucky and Tennessee, including parts of downtown Nashville.
As the work continued, several marinas along the lake failed as empty boat slips became a common site.
Tourism took a hit, even though Lake Cumberland ranks as the third-largest lake in Kentucky even at the lower water level. The number of annual visitors to the 101-mile-long lake dropped from some 4.8 million before the lake level was dropped to fewer than 4 million during the project, according to the Corps.
Marina owners had to spend millions to move their docks to accommodate the lower levels. Those still afloat financially will now face another expense to once again relocate their docks as the water level rises.
Despite his setbacks, Hamilton praised the Corps for shoring up the dam in "the way it needed to be fixed."
Kentucky political leaders, including Gov. Steve Beshear, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, praised the Corps for its accelerated pace of repairs. They also stressed the hardships endured by local businesses.
"The early completion of the work at Wolf Creek Dam will help bring back much-needed jobs in this area," Beshear said.
Rogers said the progress means "the crown jewel of southern Kentucky will be ready for the summer tourism season."
Don Getty, manager of the dam-repair project, said once the barrier wall is complete, site restoration work will still remain. He said the project should be wrapped up by summer 2014.
Meanwhile, state fish and wildlife officials are making preparations for the higher water levels and the return of more fishing enthusiasts.
This year, they will stock 150,000 more walleyes and 150,000 more striped bass than normal, the state said. Altogether, they will add 1 million walleye and striped bass to the lake this year, giving a boost to fishing.