Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Sen. Alexander introduces "The Freedom to Fish Act," legislation to prevent the U.S. Army of Engineers from stopping fishing below dams along the Corps Cumberland River

February 28, 2013 - February 28, 2013

Today I am introducing legislation along with Senator McConnell, Senator Paul, and Senator Corker, to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from restricting fishing rights in some of the best fishing areas in the States of Tennessee and Kentucky below 10 dams along the Cumberland River. 

    I have talked with the Corps several times about this. They have told me the only solution is legislation.  I am hoping there is some other solution by reasonable compromise. 

    But I am taking the Corps' advice. On Tuesday, Congressman Ed Whitfield, of Kentucky, introduced legislation on this matter, and so I am introducing similar legislation today. 

    I have also drafted language that could be included in an appropriations bill that would prevent the Corps of Engineers from using any funds to restrict fishing in what is called the tailwaters below these 10 Corps of Engineer dams on the Cumberland River. 

    Today I spoke with the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh. I urged him to have the Corps give Congress enough time to consider this matter, perhaps to work out something with the Corps by compromise or, if not, to pass legislation. 

    On Monday, I am meeting with the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Jo-Ellen Darcy, who is in charge of the Corps of Engineers, to ask that the Corps stop taking any further action to build physical barriers along the Cumberland River. 

    Earlier, I met with James DeLapp, the colonel who is the commander of the Nashville District. Then I met, along with Congressman Whitfield and Congressman Cooper of Nashville, Tenn., with MG Michael Walsh, who is the deputy commanding general.  I have had a number of meetings on this subject, and I am determined to get some result, one way or the other.     

    I am delighted to have the Republican leader, Senator McConnell, my colleague, Senator Corker from Tennessee, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky as cosponsors on the legislation. 

    One may say, with a large number of problems facing our country—from Iran to the sequester—why is a Senator—in fact, four, and a number of Congressmen interested in fishing? 

    There are 900,000 Tennesseans who have fishing licenses, and one of my jobs is to represent them. I know and they know these are some of the best fishing areas in our State. 

    This is an area where grandfathers and grandsons and granddaughters go on Saturdays and go during the week. There are lots of Tennesseans who consider these prize properties and their lands. These are public lands, and they feel they have a right to be there. 

    The problem is that the Corps of Engineers wants to erect physical barriers below the dams to keep the fishermen out of the area that is just below the dam. 

    The Corps' goal is laudable. The goal is to improve safety, they say. We all support safety, but there are much better solutions than this. 

    Let me give an analogy. When you have a railroad crossing, you do not keep the gate down at the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time. The track is not dangerous if the train is not coming. 

    The water comes through these dams only 20 percent of the time, and the water is not dangerous if the water is not spilling through the dams.  So if we kept the gate down at the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time, we would never be able to travel anywhere. That is the same sort of reasoning we have here. 

    From Washington, the Department of the Army is saying they have a policy, which they have had since 1996—which they have never applied on the Cumberland River—that suddenly they have decided, after all these years, they have to close the fishing area 100 percent of the time, even though it might be dangerous only 20 percent of the time. 

    I am not the only one who thinks this is an unreasonable policy. 

    Last week, I went to Old Hickory Dam, near Nashville. About 150 fishermen were there with me on the banks of the Cumberland River. I met with the Corps officials. They turned the water on so I could see it spilling through the dam. Then they turned it off.  I met there with Ed Carter, the director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. I met with Mike Butler, the chief executive of the Tennessee Wildlife Federation. I have talked with the Kentucky wildlife people and this is what they say. They think the Corps' plans to improve safety are so unreasonable that the wildlife agencies will not even help them enforce it. But they say, on the other hand, there are reasonable ways to improve safety; that is, to treat the waters below the dam the way the Tennessee Valley Authority does, for example, which is to erect large signs—some of which already exist at Old Hickory Dam—blow the siren when the water is coming through. You can close the parking lot.

You could patrol the area.  There are lots of ways to put the gate down, in effect, on these fishing areas 20 percent of the time. That makes a lot of sense, and the local agencies are willing to help do that. 

    Our legislation makes clear that for purposes of this act, installing and maintaining sirens, strobe lights, and signage for alerting the public of hazardous waters shall not be considered a part of the prohibition. It makes no sense to take these public lands and say to people: Well, the lawyers came in and said we need to be careful.  Of course we need to be careful; however, being careful does not mean you keep the gate down over the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time, and it doesn't mean you close the area to fishing 100 percent of the time when it is dangerous only 20 percent of the time. 

    I am also concerned about the $2.6 million the Corps needs to transfer from other parts of its budget to put up these physical barriers.  Where is the money coming from?  I thought we were in the middle of a big sequester, a big budget crunch.  I thought we were out of money.  One of the areas which has some of the most difficult problems to deal with is the Department of the Army.  This is no time to be wasting money building barriers that the wildlife people in Tennessee and Kentucky, whose job it is to encourage boat safety, think are unreasonable. 

    I am doing what the Corps has said needs to be done, which is to provide legislation.  I look forward to continuing to work with the Corps of Engineers. My hope is that we can work out a reasonable solution with the wildlife agencies. 

    The county judges on both sides of the border are very involved in this. They see the economic benefit that comes from the large number of people who visit those areas for recreational purposes. They leave their dollars behind. This creates good jobs in Tennessee and Kentucky.

    Basically, these are public waters.  Tennessee and Kentucky fishermen ought to have access to them, and there shouldn't be an edict from Washington that puts the gate down the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time. I am going to do my best to see that doesn't stand.  I hope we can work it out, but if we cannot, I am glad to introduce this legislation with Senator McConnell, Senator Corker, and Senator Paul. The same legislation is in the House of Representatives with Congressman Whitfield.  I look forward to my meeting Monday with the Assistant Secretary of the Army.