The Tennessean: Sen. Alexander may seek law to keep fishing near Cumberland dams

Posted on February 6, 2013

At a public information meeting Tuesday night, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials from Nashville told a sometimes-hostile crowd of more than 300 people how and when they will begin restricting access above and below Cumberland River dams.

The Corps said restricting boating and fishing access near 10 dams the agency operates on the Cumberland and its tributaries isnecessary to boost safety and comply with national policy.

Not so fast, said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. They announced Tuesday that they would pursue legislation to keep access near the dams if the Corps doesn’t back off.

In a meeting with Major Gen. Michael Walsh, the Corps’ deputy commander, the two lawmakers said the agency should work with local authorities in both states to develop a plan that allows access when conditions are safe.

If the Corps does not pull back from its plan to restrict boating and fishing access near the dams, Alexander, R-Tenn., and Whitfield, R-Ky., said they are prepared to introduce legislation. Alexander also said he is requesting a meeting with the Army’s assistant secretary, who oversees the Corps of Engineers.

“There is a logical solution to the problem, which is close the area when it is dangerous and open it when it is safe and give people plenty of warning about the difference,” Alexander told reporters during a conference call.

Alexander and Whitfield, along with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, made the appeal during a meeting with Walsh in Whitfield’s Washington, D.C., office. Local officials from Kentucky also attended.

When asked whether Corps officials appeared willing to consider changes, Alexander said they were courteous and listened to the concerns expressed by Tennessee and Kentucky leaders.

The meeting comes as opposition mounts to the Corps’ plan to prohibit access immediately above and below the dams.

Just before a public information meeting on the restrictions Tuesday night at McGavock High School, Lt. Col. Jim DeLapp, commander of the Corps of Engineers Nashville District, was asked to respond to the steps Alexander and Whitfield said they were prepared to take to stop the restrictions.

“I haven’t talked to the headquarters to see how that meeting went, so there’s no way for me to really have any comment on it at the time,” DeLapp said. “The (possible) legislation is new to me.”

Meeting heated

The meeting began with a PowerPoint presentation by DeLapp and was followed by a question-and-answer session that got heated on several occasions.

DeLapp was interrupted while trying to answer questions. Many who fired questions at him were applauded by the others.

At one point during the meeting, W. Scott Morris, a fisherman from Mt. Juliet, asked for the microphone. After addressing DeLapp with a brief question, he turned to the crowd and said the restrictions can be stopped. He had read the report about Alexander and Whitfield threatening legislation and said, “That’s how we’re going to combat this, through legislation. That’s it.”

The Corps of Engineers said restrictions are needed to improve public safety.

“Public safety is the Corps of Engineers’ highest priority,” DeLapp said. “There also is a lot of bad information that has gotten out there that I want to clear up. Like the myth that we’re not going to allow fishing on the Cumberland River anymore. That’s not true.”

Many in the crowd thanked DeLapp for his 19 years of service to the country, but they did not go easy on him when asking their questions. Only one person who asked a question or expressed an opinion supported the restrictions.

National policy

In an interview Monday, DeLapp said the restrictions are part of a national policy. Safety has long been a priority for the agency, and recent fatalities — three since 2009 and 14 since 1970 — show the need for the restrictions, DeLapp said. Spillway releases create undertows and whirlpools, and navigation locks fill and empty at irregular times.

“We have to be in compliance with the policies and regulations in place nationally,” DeLapp said Monday.

But boaters and anglers don’t like the plan and have been urging the Corps to reconsider. They said the Corps should restrict access only when water is released through the dams or power is being generated. Those are the times when the water is most dangerous, boaters and anglers said.

Benny Stover, 60, a longtime angler from Nashville who fishes primarily below the dams, left the public meeting early and unsatisfied.

“Seems to me that (the Corps of Engineers) is just determined to do what they’re going to do regardless of whether the public likes it or not,” Stover said. “To me, instead of spending money to pay for the restrictions, maybe they should implement fines for people who don’t wear life jackets and follow the rules that are already in place. Don’t restrict people like me that go down to Cheatham and Old Hickory and sauger fish and follow the rules.”

Safety plan needed

Alexander said lawmakers are asking the Corps to work with local authorities, including the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, to develop a better safety plan for when water is spilled through the dams.

Safety options could include installing better warnings and alarms, closing parking lots, clearing the area and putting up buoys when spilling occurs, Alexander said.

“These are some of the most important fisheries anywhere in the United States,” Alexander said. “For most of the time, they are absolutely safe. What is not safe is to go near the dams when they are open and spilling water.”

Also on Tuesday, Alexander wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy, requesting a meeting to discuss the issue.

“You should consider reasonable alternatives to improve public safety, not unilaterally prohibit access to some of the highest quality fishing areas in my state,” Alexander wrote.

He said changes should only be considered after a thorough review of public comments and suggestions.

“I would like to talk with you directly about the Corps’ decision before the Corps takes any further action,” Alexander wrote. “Open access of the Cumberland River system is critical to our recreational fishermen and is an important part of Tennessee’s economy.”