Nov 2 2006
03:34 pm

...the failure of the Wolf Creek Dam?

By way of today's Tennessean, it appears that the Corps of Engineers is working with federal, state, and local agencies to address the issue of aging infrastructure in the Cumberland River Valley:

The potential for a catastrophic failure of the aging Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky has many Middle Tennessee emergency planners mulling a Katrina-like scenario and preparing evacuation plans.

A break at the dam, where damp spots indicate growing seepage, could send the contents of the largest reservoir east of the Mississippi River roaring down the Cumberland River.

In a worst-case scenario, major flooding would occur in Celina, Hartsville, Gallatin, Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet, Goodlettsville, Lakewood and Nashville, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Corps officials say that while a large-scale disaster is possible, it's not likely, and they're monitoring the situation closely.

The Corps' performance during Katrina is not entirely reassuring.

If you live along the corridor, it might be a good idea to reassess your home insurance policy for catastrophic flooding...

A visit to the Corps of Engineers Nashville region website reveals the following information:

Why did the work in the 60's and 70's not fix the problem?

The emergency grouting done in the late 1960's was a temporary measure to prevent sudden dam failure. It was never considered a permanent solution to the seepage problems through the foundation of the dam. The diaphragm walls installed in the late 1970's were considered permanent solutions, however, the wall along the crest of the dam was not long or deep enough to block all the seepage paths in the foundation. The extent of these walls was affected by funding and other constraints.

If a trigger event such as a sinkhole develops , what will happen?

The lake level would be dropped as rapidly as possible and may cause flooding downstream. Most of the downstream communities would be affected below the dam such as Burkesville, KY, Celina, TN, Carthage, TN, Nashville, TN and even Clarksville, TN.

Are there other dams in the Nashville District with serious seepage problems besides Wolf Creek Dam ?

Yes, Center Hill Dam has foundation seepage problems through both the right abutment and left rim due to large solution features (caves) within the limestone formations.

And check out the "disaster scenario" map for Nashville

That's assuming a water level of 710' behind the Wolf Creek Dam, and also assuming that the Cordell Hull Dam and Old Hickory Dam hold.

The good news: the Corps is working to shore up the dam, to the tune of over $300 million over the next 8 years.

The bad news: Who knows. Don't say you weren't warned, because it's obvious that this government won't know how to help in the event of an actual emergency.

NashvilleFlood.JPG154.14 KB
Number9's picture

What have the two U.S.

What have the two U.S. Senate candidates said about this?

Andy Axel's picture

Don't know. This "news"

Don't know. This "news" only broke today.

It concerns me a little bit, as I work on Lower Broad, and I walked out to do a little thumbnail survey this afternoon.

Downtown, 45' of water would probably run a good storey or so of water up Broadway as far as the Convention Center/Gaylord Entertainment Center. The Ryman Auditorium would probably have several feet of water in it. All the first floor honky-tonks, bars, restaurants, and tourist shops along 2nd Ave. and up Lower Broad would probably be total losses. The first floor of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the new Schermerhorn Symphony all would be seriously damaged. LP Field would be inundated with water, sewage, and debris from upriver.

Along Old Hickory Lake, Johnny Cash's old estate, The Fold, would be gone, along with all those other beautiful "lakefront" properties.

And the damage would probably extend as far as Clarksville, or even further -- perhaps as far as Cadiz, KY or Grand Rivers, KY.

Cities like Celina, TN and Carthage, TN would be 50-75% losses.

This is all assuming that Old Hickory and Cordell Hull hold up under the stress of millions of cubic feet of water that they weren't designed to contain, and weren't seriously undermined as those dams were overtopped.

Sobering stuff. I sincerely hope the Army Corps gets it right this time.


You can live a batter life, or a butter life. Or both, if you choose.

Andy Axel's picture

Oh, I'm extremely guarded.

Oh, I'm extremely guarded. I read the engineering post-mortems on Katrina.

The thing that worries me about these big dams is this: Much like the floodwalls in NOLA, I don't know how much thought has been given to how their construction will fare should they be overtopped. The scouring of the ground behind the floodwalls is what undermined many of those -- just imagine that multiplied several million times, and one might imagine how an earthen dam might perform.

Luckily, I'm waaaaaaaaaaaaay out of that watershed when I'm not at the office.


You can live a batter life, or a butter life. Or both, if you choose.

smalc's picture

Wow, take a look at those

Wow, take a look at those caves in the construction pics in the powerpoint presentation that is linked to the article.  They should have grouted around the core trench, or relocated the dam. It's not like the 1940s and 1950s were the dark ages of dam construction, the Corps should have had better practices in place. 

Andy Axel's picture

I know, right? Still,

I know, right?

Still, though, the substrate has to be pretty porous. Kentucky is one big slab of Karst.

I'll be curious to hear what they find as they build that new lateral wall. Probably run smack into an aquifer.


You can live a batter life, or a butter life. Or both, if you choose.

Andy Axel's picture

I've been reading up on Wolf

I've been reading up on Wolf Creek after your post. It's a classic boondoggle.

Any particularly good links?

I should have linked this one, but this is the collateral from the US Army Corps attached to that Tennessean article:


Redolent of the same "no one could have predicted" predictions which arose from the Hurricane Pam exercise, et al.

Hermitage, Celina and Carthage shouldn't have to pay that kind of price.


You can live a batter life, or a butter life. Or both, if you choose.

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