The Tennessean: Op-ed by Sen. Alexander and Ed Carter: Army Corps plans threaten Cumberland River dam tailwaters

Posted on February 5, 2013

Tennesseans know something special when they see it, and the fishing areas in tailwaters below the dams on the Cumberland River — some of the best fishing you’re likely to find — are no exception. From Center Hill to Percy Priest, the shimmering tailwaters below the Cumberland River dams are a significant source of enjoyment for Tennesseans, and visitors from around the world.

But as concern over a proposal to restrict access to the tailwaters is revealing, there is even more at stake. When you consider this prized Tennessee resource with the Army Corps of Engineers’ intentions in mind, the tailwaters spill forth as a compelling case about why Washington should stop telling Tennessee what to do, fiscal responsibility and attention to economic consequences.

Tonight, the Corps will hold its final public meeting on a plan to implement a barrier system restricting access to fishing areas in tailwaters below dams on the Cumberland River. The Corps, to its great credit, has held the meetings, and now it’s time to explore how stakeholders can best balance public safety with preserving a critical recreational and economic resource for Tennesseans.

The first thing to consider is whether it’s possible for state action to adequately deal with safety. Since 1978, there have been eight boating-related deaths below Corps dams on the Cumberland River. Boaters have been required to wear life jackets below dams since 1989, and in most cases deaths could have been prevented if that requirement had been followed. Adjusting those regulations to require automatically inflatable life jackets, or traditional flotation devices, are an example of how simple, state-level decisions can address safety concerns without the federal government broadly restricting access to fishing areas with some of the best fishing opportunities in the state.

Then, there’s the cost of the Corps plan — $2.6 million for a barrier system.

Tennessee knows all too well how unnecessary projects — particularly of the federal variety — can soak up money that could otherwise go toward other priorities. In this case, the $2.6 million for the Corps barrier plan will take money away from other critical projects.

Finally, it’s clear that the tailwaters are an important part of Tennessee’s economy. In 2011, there were nearly 890,000 fishing licenses sold in Tennessee. And every angler or boater who eases up to the Cumberland River’s dams in the hopes of a little luck is also casting dollars into Tennessee’s economy and the local tax base.

In 2006, the last year for which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had comprehensive data, Tennessee residents and visitors spent about $600 million on fishing and related expenses like lodging, equipment and transportation. 

Of course, that economic activity is spread across our state’s many great water resources, but the tailwaters are a signature attraction for some of the most enthusiastic anglers in Tennessee. And beyond benefiting the private sector, fishing licenses, sales taxes on equipment purchases and other spending generate important revenue for Tennessee.

When you consider these three important principles: state and local control; using our taxpayers’ money wisely; and supporting the Tennessee economy, it’s clear the Corps needs to keep fishing for alternatives to its proposed policy.

In fact, it all reinforces a point that Tennesseans already understand every time they pick up a rod and reel: The tailwaters are a valuable resource, and we should fight to keep them that way.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. R-Tenn., is ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Energy and Water. Ed Carter is executive director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.