Corps release lengthy piece on Wolf Creek Dam, impact on Cumberland River Basin

Special to Laker Country 104.9

By Lee Roberts, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs

When the Cumberland River Basin in southeastern Kentucky experiences storms and waters rise, Wolf Creek Dam on the Cumberland River provides enormous flood risk management benefits.

The staff at Wolf Creek Dam releases and holds water at the direction of water managers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Water Management Section, which directs operations at 10 dam projects in the Cumberland River Basin. The actions employees take at Wolf Creek Dam generate hydroelectricity for the region while reducing flood risk and potential flood damage in communities downstream.

Anthony Watters, Wolf Creek Dam Powerplant superintendent, said more than 20 people support hydropower production and maintenance at the dam and work very hard around the clock to operate the project to maintain water levels at Lake Cumberland.

“Before we ever get to the point where we are going to spill water, we want to maximize our hydropower generation,” Watters said. “When we have a high-water condition, we will first put our generators on overload and put as much as we can out into the system to provide power. The moment we start spilling water, it is passed downstream and can’t be utilized to produce hydroelectricity.”

Wolf Creek Dam is located at Cumberland River mile 460.9 in Jamestown, Kentucky, and forms Lake Cumberland, which encompasses portions of Wayne, Russell, Pulaski, Clinton, McCreary, Laurel, and Whitley counties. The reservoir is 101 miles long, has 1,255 miles of shoreline, and has a total storage capability of 6,089,000 acre-feet of water at elevation 760 feet, mean sea level (MSL).

The upper portion of the reservoir pool contains 2,094,000 acre-feet of area, which is used to hold floodwaters that would otherwise cause flooding downstream. One acre foot of water equals 325,850 gallons. This water is utilized to the maximum extent possible for power production and surplus water is released through the spillway gates.

Of the remaining 3,995,000 acre-feet of reservoir capacity, 2,142,000 acre-feet, corresponding to a drawdown of 50 feet, is allocated specifically for power operation, leaving a minimum pool of at least 1,853,000 acre-feet available at all times for public use and conservation purposes.

“So if you have a high-water event downstream, we can hold a great amount of water to reduce downstream flooding until everything else kind of washes out,” Watters said. “Then we can release water as safely as possible downstream and recapture storage capacity in Lake Cumberland.”

The Flood Control Act of 1938 and the Rivers and Harbor Act of 1946 authorized the Corps of Engineers to build Wolf Creek Dam. Construction of the project began in August 1941. After a three-year delay during World War II, the Corps completed the project for full beneficial use in August 1952.

The Nashville District completed Wolf Creek Dam for flood control operation in 1950. Three of the six hydroelectric generating units were placed in operation in 1951 and the remaining three in 1952. It cost $80.4 million to construct the dam. Operation of the lake is for the primary purposes of flood control and the production of hydroelectric power.

The electrical energy produced by the project is sufficient to supply the needs of an average city with a population of 375,000. Incidental to the production of power, the water released through the turbines provides a favorable streamflow below the dam. In supplementing low flows, this water improves domestic water supply, reduces stream pollution and provides aid to navigation.

James Riley, Powerplant senior operator, said the team at Wolf Creek Dam works 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, maintaining and operating the facility. The hydropower staff adheres to applicable regulations, standing orders for power generation during times of peak usage, and communicates with water managers in the Nashville District when determining when to generate power and support the release of water downstream, he added.

“The water isn’t even close to touching our gates right now, so the main thing we do to support flood risk management, and to draw down the lake, is generate power,” Riley explained.

There are five lines that distribute hydroelectricity from Wolf Creek Dam via the Tennessee Valley Authority and power preference customers into the power grid in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“The entire system in our region is benefitting off of the power that we produce,” Riley said.

The dam is 258-feet high and 1,796-feet long with 10 spillway gates that are 50-feet wide and 37-feet high. Its earthen embankment is 3,940-feet long. A total of 1,380,000 cubic yards of concrete and 10,016,500 of earth were placed during construction of the dam and embankment. The dam, powerhouse, and lake continue to be operated and supervised by Corps of Engineers’ personnel.

Deborah Greene, hydropower mechanic, said it’s her job to inspect, maintain, and perform general upkeep of the power generation systems, spillway gates, and associated equipment. She also operates the 10 spillway gates during high-water events to discharge water from Lake Cumberland downstream.

She said it’s an amazing view to see the water pour over the spillways when she is called upon to operate the gates.

“When I watch it it’s like the big waterfalls out west,” Greene said. “I’m in awe of the power that water can create.”

Greene is a Pike County, Kentucky, native, and said she experienced the ravages of flooding when growing up near the border with Virginia and West Virginia. She is happy that her career path drew her to the Corps of Engineers where she could be a part of a team that works with communities that are affected by flooding, and to mitigate the risk of flooding that hurts people and destroys homes and businesses.

Earlier in her career she worked in industry. She then opted to get technical training from Somerset Technical College, receiving a degree in maintenance mechanics. She applied and then entered the Nashville District’s Hydropower Training Program in 1999, and then reported to Wolf Creek Dam in 2001.

“I’ve seen the devastation that floods can cause. I know there have been a lot of homes, lives, and properties saved due to this project being here,” Greene said. “And I’m very thankful that I work here and to help reduce the risk of flooding. This is the best job I’ve ever had in my life. I’m pretty satisfied.”

The reservoir normally fluctuates between 50,250 acres, elevation 723 MSL, at the top of the power pool and a minimum surface area of 35,820 acres, elevation 673 MSL. During periods of high inflow, when it is necessary to utilize the flood storage, the surface area may reach 63,530 acres, elevation 760 MSL. However, such floods occur infrequently, and the levels resulting from minor floods and power operations do not seriously interfere with most recreational activities.

Robert Dillingham, hydraulic engineer in the Nashville District Water Management Section, said the Cumberland River is highly regulated, and it all starts with Wolf Creek Dam because half of the flows through Nashville come from Wolf Creek Dam.

“It is not uncommon for the elevation in Lake Cumberland to vary by as much as 50 feet in a single year, and we have seen it vary by as much as 70 feet in a year,” Dillingham said. “Having this flexibility and large pool allows for a much more predictable river in the reach below the dam.”

Dillingham also noted that having such a large storage reservoir upstream provides valuable insurance water and greatly reduces the likelihood of drought impacts along the Cumberland River.

Watters said he appreciates the entire team at Wolf Creek Dam for their efforts every day to support the various aspects of flood risk reduction.

The public can also obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at The public can also follow Lake Cumberland on Facebook at

Wolf Creek Dam at Cumberland River mile 460.9 in Jamestown, Kentucky, forms Lake Cumberland. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District operates and maintains the project, which provides enormous flood risk management benefits. The dam is seen here the early morning of Jan. 10, 2023. (USACE Photo by Leon Roberts)