Spring showers bring out lake staff superpowers

USACE - Louisville District
Published March 3, 2022
Updated: March 3, 2022

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District manages 17 flood risk reduction lakes, which receive an average of 15 million visitors each year. While many visitors enjoy the campgrounds, playgrounds and other recreational activities the lakes provide, some may not realize the amount of work that goes on in preparation for the summer months. 

Some say April showers bring May flowers, but in this case, spring showers bring out lake staff superpowers. 

At Buckhorn Lake in Buckhorn, Kentucky, each spring, mother nature brings a large amount of rainfall causing the lake level to rise. 

“Our last two significant floods were in 2019 and 2021, and both were near record pool,” said Priscilla Southwood, Buckhorn Lake park ranger.

Spring flooding at Buckhorn Lake usually occurs in late-February through April and has a big impact on the communities upstream as several families can be blocked by floodwaters for weeks at a time, according to Buckhorn Lake staff. 

“Supplies have often been taken to them by boat via the National Guard or county officials,” Southwood said. “Ferry Boat service is utilized for emergency situations such as delivering medication or food. Boats, paddles and life jackets are loaned out to the Leslie County Emergency Operations Center by the Corps of Engineers and are used as needed during flooding.”

According to USACE operations personnel, because the lake rises so quickly during this time and there being a 25-foot difference from summer pool to winter pool, it leaves behind significant debris and mud around the project site that must be cleaned up each year. 

“It’s a team effort to clean it all up and these guys do it. They do it every single year,” said Buckhorn Lake Project Manager Dewayne Shouse. “Every amenity in these areas, from a lone picnic table to the light fixtures inside a shower house, must be cleaned and often replaced prior to opening to the public after each flood event. It’s all hands-on deck. Even the office admins and park managers pitch in to help.” 

Each year, Buckhorn Lake staff, with help from Carr Creek Lake employees and local contractors, work diligently to remove mud and clean up debris to ensure the project is ready for the upcoming recreational season. However, this is no simple task. 

“Our lake accumulates a very large amount of drift during flooding,” said Christopher Farler, Buckhorn Lake maintenance mechanic leader. “The maintenance team works to corral the drift into one location with log boom, and it is later removed by a contractor.” 

Between 5,000 and 10,000 cubic yards are removed annually, according to Shouse.

Trace Branch Campground and Recreation Area, Confluence Recreation Area and Leatherwood Recreation Area flood annually when the lake waters rise, and cleanup is required at each location.

“We usually clean up mud and debris at the dam boat ramp and at Trace Branch and Confluence Area,” Southwood said. “The boat-in campground usually has a lot of debris that must be stacked and burned. Bathrooms and shower houses at Trace Branch flood, so they must be sprayed with pressure washers, disinfected and cleaned. Also, shelters and playgrounds must be pressure washed and disinfected. Then old mulch at the playgrounds must be dug up and new mulch placed down.”

Although flooding usually occurs each year, the impact varies depending on how much water the lake must hold to prevent flooding downstream. 

“Our maintenance staff spends the majority of time during flood season doing cleanup and capturing drift, which leaves little time for other required maintenance duties,” Farler said. “The longer a campground is under water, the more compacted silt material must be removed.”

The team uses boats, trucks, skid steers, tractors and excavators to remove all the mud, and pumps are placed in the water along the shoreline. Pressure washers are set up to help clean areas like parking lots and campsites. 

“Employees work for hours with hoses to spray and remove the accumulated silt,” Farler added.

Even with additional support from the local community and volunteers from the Leslie County correctional institution, it takes approximately two to three weeks to clean up the mud and drift, depending on the severity of the flooding situation. 

“There aren’t very many flood control projects around that are affected by the quantities of sedimentation and drift annually as Buckhorn Lake,” said Shouse.  “This being said, no one works harder than our team on a routine basis to provide a safe recreation experience for the underserved area we serve in Southeastern Kentucky.”

In addition to their recurring cleanup duties, the team must also manage gate changes and monitor the water levels, making it a very busy time for Buckhorn Lake staff. 

“The effort that our team exerts often goes unnoticed because when we do our job correctly, by the time recreation season begins the public will not even realize a flood had occurred,” said Shouse. “This is what we take pride in.”