Will Topp steers his ATV through a sea of sawgrass growing behind his Crittenden County home, driving over what remains of Lake George.
Fishing lures dangle from the power lines above the grassy lakebed, and the eagles that would perch on the tree across his lakefront home to eye fish are gone. A small pool of water is all that remains of the western Kentucky lake as scorching temperatures of a lingering heatwave bake the cracked, dry earth.
Topp, his wife and their four kids would often have cookouts and take boats out to go fishing on the lake that had been a part of the landscape for more than 50 years, something that feels like a “distant memory” now.
“It was my dream to have my family grow up on a lake,” Topp said. “It’s surreal that we’ve gotten to this point, and the decisions that have been made to put us in this position. It’s just, it’s mind boggling.”
But he says his plight is minor compared to his neighbors just miles away.
Officials in Marion, the Crittenden County seat, faced a crisis in April when a sinkhole began to grow in the lake’s city-owned levee. The prospect of a levee failure could have unleashed more than 180 million gallons of water on the community of a little under 3,000 people, endangering the city’s water plant and backup water reservoir, multiple bridges and the local hospital.
In consultation with the Kentucky Division of Water, Marion leaders decided to take an excavator to breach the levee and drain Lake George – depleting about a year’s worth of water supply for the city.
Not long after, Marion Mayor Jared Byford signed an executive order declaring a community-wide disaster implementing some water restrictions but assured the community their water supply was adequate, as reported by the Crittenden Press.
“At this time, the City has sufficient water supply for our needs, but steps need to be taken to assure that we remain able to supply sufficient water for City residents over the long term,” Byford said in early May. “This crisis will not be a short-term issue and will test our community’s resolve.”
In the months since, that infrastructure failure combined with cruel luck from Mother Nature has only deepened the town’s water shortage crisis. The unusually high summer temperatures have accelerated the evaporation of the town’s remaining water reservoir, Old City Lake, which state water officials determined had contained much less water than initially realized.
Combined with little rainfall, the city’s water supply has recently fluctuated under 10 days worth of water, according to Marion City Administrator Adam Ledford. The emergency response from the state and community has been swift. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency for the city last month, and Kentucky National Guard tanker trucks have rumbled through town hauling raw water from a nearby river to boost the city’s water supply.
Some life-long community members have relied on their faith to get through the crisis, but that hasn’t shaken the anxiety and frustration of some who question how the situation came to be and the fears of what may come next.
Resilience and sacrifices
Marion Baptist Church members gathered around the tables in the church gymnasium, the remains of potluck sitting on nearby tables. Pastor Aaron Brown and his congregation bowed their heads and prayed for rain.
“We pray right now for your will to be done, and that’s a hard prayer to pray. Because we want rain now,” Brown said in early July. “We want to walk out in the parking lot and see water falling from the sky.”
Brown said the severe water shortage has meant sacrifices for many in the community, some substantial. Kristi Beavers, who owns a family-owned car wash across the street from the church, spoke to the congregation about her own sacrifice with shutting down her car wash.
“God has blessed our business enough that we can close and that we chose to close to be able to provide water for my community,” Beavers said, her voice choking. “I don’t know how long it will be. I don’t know how long we can do it. But I do know that God will provide.”
Beavers said her father started their local business as a gas station in 1960 when he was 19 years old. He passed away recently. While she believes he would have been angry at how the water crisis has been handled, she knows he would have been proud about how she’s stepped up for her community.
The first weekend she closed the car wash was this past Father’s Day weekend. She believes she can have the car wash shut down for another month but is wary for the future because her business supports three households.
In the meantime, Beavers and others have been volunteering at a local armory building where locals and people from surrounding counties have coordinated a massive bottled water distribution in town. Thousands of cases of bottled water have been given out each distribution day multiple days a week.
These cases are especially crucial as the city last week issued a boil water advisory because of the shortage, asking residents to use bottled water for drinking and cooking because the tap water’s safety can’t be guaranteed.
Local residents have also stepped up their conservation efforts, using buckets and barrels to catch rain and only taking showers or baths when necessary. State officials have ramped up efforts to curb the crisis. Divers recently installed a floating water intake in city’s remaining water reservoir so that the city can still draw raw water as the reservoir’s levels fluctuate.
The state is also working to draw water from other nearby utilities into the city. Marion officials said Saturday the city is getting 180,000 gallons a day from the Crittenden-Livingston Water District, equating to a little less than half the city’s usual daily water usage.
Frustration and worries
But that hasn’t alleviated the concerns and frustrations that some Marion residents have with the ongoing situation.
68-year-old Evelyn Hayes and her husband Bryant sparingly take baths or showers now at their East Mound Park Avenue home, and they only flush the toilet when necessary. A family member provided them with a large water tank that sits in their driveway, a privilege not everyone has.
Hayes said he doesn’t have Facebook and feels that she’s been left in the dark by the city regarding updates amid the crisis, a sentiment that other Marion residents shared. She also wondered what could have been done to have avoided the ongoing emergency.
“If they’d been doing maintenance like they should have been – I mean, these old farmers even walk their levees to see if it’s leaking – and that leak didn’t occur overnight. It couldn’t have,” Hayes said. “To me, it just says the city don’t care about the people living here.”
Will Topp, the homeowner next to Lake George, said he’s seen issues with the levee since his family moved to the property in 2013. He specifically remembers seeing bright green grass along the bottom of the earthen levee during drier summer months, which he believes is evidence of leakage.
“I’ve known for a while that it needed some attention,” Topp said. “But, you know, with small town America, we’re not operating on a huge budget here.”
The Kentucky Division of Water inspects dams across the state, checking in more often on dams that are classified as being more hazardous, or when more lives and property are at risk if a dam were to fail. The Lake George levee’s classification as a “significant” hazard dam meant inspectors have tried to check the levee every three years.
During a 2016 inspection of the dam, state water officials assessed its condition as “fair” – meaning the dam had some “maintenance deficiencies” but that the deficiencies were non-structural and did “not affect the safe operation of the dam.”
During the last regular inspection in 2019, state officials downgraded the dam’s condition to “poor” – meaning that the dam had multiple maintenance deficiencies that affected the safe operation of the dam and may have had leakage issues that weren’t addressed. This classification also included the possibility of structural deficiencies.
In a Friday interview, Marion City Administrator Adam Ledford said he understood why residents would be worried about the levee’s maintenance. While he wasn’t the city administrator when the 2016 inspection took place, he said the city did address the 2019 inspection.
The city official said a company was hired to deal with animal issues around the levee, including filling in crawdad holes. Specific material was also used to dry up “soft spots” along the bottom of the levee, he said, and the city has regularly mowed and trimmed the vegetation on the levee.
He said a fourth issue cited in the inspection, calling for improvements to a concrete spillway on the side of the levee, had yet to be addressed, but he asserted that the spillway didn’t have any bearing that led to the forming of the sinkhole in April.
WKMS News is awaiting a response to a records request made to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet for inspection documents of the dam dating back more than a decade.
“A lot of people in these type of crisis situations, they’re frustrated, and they really need to get to the root of the cause,” Ledford said. “I understand that.”
Ledford said city officials suspect damage to Lake George’s water intake system – which was discovered shortly after a leak was first reported at the levee in April – contributed to the levee’s downfall. The water intake system has piping that could draw raw water from the middle of the lake, running underneath the levee and to the city’s water plant to be purified.
He said through sonar, city officials discovered the intake system had broken into pieces in the water, which he suspects came from wind damage by storms in the winter and spring. Ledford said that could have put more pressure on the piping running underneath the levee.
“Your problem is caused not so much by damage to the pipe itself, but from water being able to get around the looser areas around the pipe and actually run on the outside of the pipe,” Ledford said. “This is still being reviewed by engineers.
Regardless of how soon the water shortage is resolved in Marion, Topp and his family may be without a lake for the foreseeable future. Topp and other Crittenden County residents have questioned whether draining the lake was the best option; Ledford said state water officials advised in April that they needed to drain it as quickly as possible.
Topp worries not only about how the drained lake may affect his home’s property value but how the small city will bear the costs of working toward a long-term water solution.
For now, Topp said, Mother Nature is slowly taking back the lake.
“You give it 10 years, you got a forest where a lake used to be.”