The Tennessean: Sen. Lamar Alexander may hold up Corps budget requests if fishing restrictions enforced

By Duane W. Gang

Posted on May 9, 2013

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander on Wednesday threatened to hold up budget requests involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if that agency moves forward with its current plan to restrict fishing access near Cumberland River dams.

“You are really thumbing your nose at the elected officials of the people of this country,” Alexander, R-Tenn., said during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing. “You ought to be paying attention to our judgment on this, especially when so many members of Congress of both sides of the aisle have made themselves clear on this.”

When the Corps releases water from the 10 dams it operates on the Cumberland and its tributaries, the water immediately below becomes turbulent. Since last year, the Corps has worked on a plan to prohibit boats and anglers from getting too close, citing safety as its top priority.

Anglers oppose the restrictions and lawmakers from across Tennessee and Kentucky have urged the Corps to compromise and still allow some level of access. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which patrols the Cumberland and its lakes, has vowed not to enforce the restrictions.

The Senate in March passed a resolution signaling its opposition to the plan, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to prevent the Corps from carrying out the restrictions.

Alexander is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water and made his comments during a hearing on the Corps’ 2014 budget request.

Difficult road

In order to transfer money from one account to another, the Corps would need the permission of Alexander and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the subcommittee’s chairwoman. Alexander said the Corps will find it difficult to get his approval for such reprogramming requests “anywhere in the country until I get the Corps’ attention on this issue.”

“If you are not going to pay attention to the elected representatives of the people of Tennessee, Kentucky and other states, I am not going to pay attention to your judgment,” Alexander said.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the Corps’ commanding general, said he supports his district commander’s decision to restrict the dam access. He said an inspector general report criticized the agency for not adhering to a 1996 policy requiring restrictions in hazardous waters near dams and locks.

The Corps has cited 14 drownings since 1970, although some of those occurred from the banks where fishing access will remain.

“Complicating that is the number of deaths that occurred, deaths with folks who were wearing life vests,” Bostick said. “We are not thumbing our nose at the Congress and certainly not to you, sir. We will continue to work with the local community.”

The Corps had planned to restrict access with cables, but Bostick said the agency will use buoys and signs at first.

Feinstein said the Corps would be wise to listen to Alexander.

“General, you are new to this. This is a very reasonable member — I think 99.9 percent of the time,” Feinstein said. “My strong advice would be to try to work something out with him.”