The Tennessean: With federal cuts, Sen. Lamar Alexander urges delay in fishing rules at Cumberland dams

Posted on March 4, 2013

Written by Duane W. Gang

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander urged a top Army official Monday to use the automatic spending cuts hitting federal agencies as a way to delay the Corps of Engineers’ plan to restrict fishing access near Cumberland River dams.

As part of the spending cuts, federal programs and agencies must trim $85 billion out of their budgets over the remaining seven months of the federal fiscal year. It’s part of an effort to put in place $1.2 trillion in reductions over the next decade.

Alexander, R-Tenn., met Monday in his office with Jo-Ellen Darcy, the assistant secretary of the Army who oversees the Corps. The Corps is working on a plan to prohibit access immediately above and below the 10 dams the agency operates on the Cumberland and its tributaries.

In an interview, Alexander said the sequester should allow the Corps to delay putting in place the restrictions, and he asked Darcy to use the next seven months to gather public input and work with local officials on an alternative plan.

“The Corps is desperately underfunded anyway for the work that it does on locks, dams, flood control and recreation areas and spending $2.6 million to restrict fishing at times when the water is not hazardous is unreasonable,”  lexander said.

When the Corps releases water from a dam, the water immediately below becomes extremely turbulent, and officials say the restrictions are needed not only for safety but to fully comply with a 1996 agency policy requiring restrictions in hazardous waters near dams and locks.

Avid anglers vocally oppose the plan and Alexander, along with Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., have been urging the Corps to reconsider the restrictions. Whitfield also attended Monday’s meeting, as did an aide to Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

Alexander filed legislation last week in the Senate to prevent the Corps from enacting the restrictions and has drafted language that could be included in an appropriations bill that would prevent the agency from using federal funds to restrict access. It mirrors Whitfield’s House bill. The legislation is known as the “Freedom to Fish Act.”

Previously, Alexander said his legislation would have delayed the plan by requiring the Corps to conduct a full environmental impact review before putting the restrictions in place. Such a move could delay the Corps’ plan for more than a year.

The Corps officials in Washington, D.C., and in Nashville have met with the two lawmakers multiple times on the issue. Corps officials in Nashville have said they cannot comment on pending or proposed legislation.

Alexander and others, including the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, want the Corps to prohibit access only when dam spillways are open, the times they say the water is the most dangerous. When water is not spilling, they say the Corps can safely allow access.