Feb. 14–Water, water everywhere, and all the bank accounts did shrink. That’s the fear of local municipalities surrounding Lake Cumberland — and could be a concern nationwide — over efforts by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to collect water usage fees for those who draw out water from the lake.
It’s a problem Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator in Washington, has made his mission to rectify, the latest step being a plea to the Corps in the form of a written letter to reconsider — or at least to delay action until the effects of an administration turnover could be realized.
“I’m writing to voice my opinion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to require municipal and industrial users of Lake Cumberland to pay for water supply from Lake Cumberland and yearly operation and maintenance costs of the dam and lake,” began the letter. “I also request that you not consider these water supply users to be trespassers for continuing to withdraw water from the lake in the absence of water supply storage agreements.
“Finally, I ask that the Corps delay any action furthering this plan until this administration has nominated and the Senate has confirmed a new Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), so that he or she may have a chance to consider, revise, or suspend any such plan.”
The efforts to charge the communities around the lake goes back to the Water Supply Act of 1958, which required Water Supply Storage Agreements and annual payments for operation and maintenance costs for Wolf Creek Dam, plus interest. Local communities haven’t been paying those fees over the years, but from the standpoint of the law, have been out of compliance.
Affected would be Somerset, Burnside, Albany, Jamestown and Monticello as well as McCreary County Water District, Woodson Bend Resort, General Burnside Island State Park, Kingsford Manufacturing Company, Eastern Kentucky Power Cooperative (John Sherman Cooper Power Station at Burnside) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re still very frustrated with the whole process,” said Paul. “We hear from people who are frustrated in Somerset with the expense the Corps of Engineers is trying to extract from them. … They don’t think it’s fair.”
He added, “We’re still fighting the fight. There are a couple of ways to do that. One is with legislation. The other way is telling the Corps directly that we don’t think their interpretation (of the Water Supply Act) is correct.”
Paul, a Republican Bowling Green ophthalmologist, stopped in Somerset for a town hall meeting last October and spoke at length about the water fee situation, flanked by officials from lake-adjacent communities. Specifically, Paul mentioned the amendment he had attached to the Senate version of the Water Resources act that would keep the Corps at bay for a decade. However, the amendment was not included in the Water Resources Development Act Conference.
“We were surprised that it happened,” Paul told the Commonwealth Journal on Monday, referring to the amendment’s failure to be included. “When it passed the Senate, we truly believed we had won and something good would come out of this.”
Paul blamed the mentality of “Washington Math” — the idea that if the Corps wouldn’t get to take a $2 million tax for example, that an equal amount in spending would have to be cut in order to make the situation come out revenue neutral.
“We’re working hard to get it back into the bill that will move forward, but also we’re working hard lobbying (for help from a new Assistant Secretary of the Army),” said Paul. “President Trump knows lots of folks in Kentucky supported him, so we think we have a better chance to get more out of his administration.”
On whether he thought a new person in charge of that position would affect the stance of the Corps of Engineers, Paul said, “We’re hopeful. These are career people, so it’s not always easy to tell what their through process is, but we’re hoping a Republican administration will have more of an open mind on this.”
Earlier this month, Congressman Hal Rogers’ office told the Commonwealth Journal that the U.S. Representative from Somerset had “included language” in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2017 that would prevent the Corps from moving forward with an “unnecessary” study, and that though the appropriations bill wasn’t passed last year, it still could be before April 28, and the language could still be included.
Lee Roberts, Public Affairs Office for the Corps’ Nashville District, said that he hadn’t seen Paul’s letter yet and could not comment on it, but took a matter-of-fact approach on the issue in general.
“The language in the water bill hasn’t been passed or made law yet. That would remove funding for the water allocation study that’s ongoing,” said Roberts. “… Right now, we’re conducting the study in accordance with the law. In such time as they remove the funding, we would have to stop at that point.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently seeking public comments on the process of bringing Lake Cumberland communities into compliance and collecting usage fees. Comments should be addressed to Mr. Chip Hall, Department of the Army, Nashville District, Corps of Engineers, 110 9th Avenue South, Room A-405m Nashville, TN 37203, or e-mail at CorpsLRNPlanningPublicCom@usace.army.mil, and should be submitted by March 1.
Roberts also took a wait-and-see approach as far as how a new Trump appointment would affect the Corps’ efforts.
“Even if we continued on … I don’t think anything would be final until Fiscal Year 2018,” he said. “We still have a ways to go, is what I’m trying to say. After public comments are made, I think that would generate another report that would require even more public comment.
“There is plenty of time for that appointment to be made and for them to react in their leadership roles,” he added. “There is certainly time for the budget process to work.”
While Paul is working with Rogers to address the concerns around Lake Cumberland, he noted that it could eventually become a quandary of a much wider scope.
“The problem is getting bigger,” he said. “They’re talking about applying this to the Barren River as well (in western Kentucky). That means it will apply to every lake in the country; by the time it all adds up, all the lakes in the country, we’re talking about billions of dollars in new taxes. Just in Somerset alone, the estimate is over a million, and that’s without a significant catastrophe (such as to Wolf Creek Dam).”
Paul said the reaction he’s heard from local community leaders has been mixed, like his own, to what has happened. He urged Kentuckians to file their reactions with the Corps during the comment period to stop a “outrageous fees” for using a natural resource.
“I know they were excited when we got the legislation in, and now probably, like I am, they’re disappointed,” he said, noting that the letter he sent the Corps would also be sent to municipalities and significant agencies around the region. “They know I’m still working on it.
“Dozens (of communities) in Kentucky use (Lake Cumberland) as their water supply,” he added. “Often, it’s a small little town in the periphery of the lake that is not economically prosperous enough to withstand a lake fee like this. We think we’ll have a bigger coalition, and hopefully a louder voice.”