Alexander promises legislation to keep dam fishing open

Dam Restrictions from Lee Roberts on Vimeo.

Video Report: Fishing enthusiasts from Kentucky and Tennessee were lured to Old Hickory Dam Feb. 21, 2013 for Sen. Lamar Alexander’s press conference where he announced legislation to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District from complying with a headquarters regulation that requires the organization to restrict waterborne access in hazardous waters near its 10 dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries. The senator from Tennessee said he believes the current conditions-based policy provides for safety and still allows for recreation in the fishing-rich areas.

(Editor’s Note: In the interest of transparency, the video and print stories in this report are by an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District.  This story is not an official release or an endorsed position of the Nashville District.  It is personally written for an objective and newsworthy journalism assignment in a master’s degree program at Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla.)

Video and Story By Lee Roberts

OLD HICKORY, Tenn. (Feb. 21, 2013) – Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee announced at a press conference today at Old Hickory Dam that he would introduce legislation to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District from complying with a regulation that promotes safety and prohibits boating access to hazardous waters near its 10 dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee answers media questions following a press conference Feb. 21, 2013 at Old Hickory Dam in Old Hickory, Tenn. The senator announced he would introduce legislation to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from restricting waterborne access to hazardous waters near its 10 dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries. (Photo by Lee Roberts)
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee answers media questions following a press conference Feb. 21, 2013 at Old Hickory Dam in Old Hickory, Tenn. The senator announced he would introduce legislation to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from restricting waterborne access to hazardous waters near its 10 dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries. (Photo by Lee Roberts)

The senator said, “Water spills through the Cumberland River dams less than 20 percent of the time on average. To close off the tailwaters to fishing 100 percent of the time would be like keeping the gate down at the railroad crossing 100 percent of the time: The track isn’t dangerous when the train isn’t coming, and the tailwaters aren’t dangerous when the water isn’t spilling through the dam.”

A pro-fishing group present at the event applauded the senator who purposely held the press conference on Corps property with the dam as its backdrop.  He used the setting to announce his plan to block restrictions at dams in the Cumberland River Basin.  (See the senator’s news release regarding the Corps restrictions).

During Alexander’s press conference he proposed delaying the Nashville District specifically from complying with the regulation using legislation that would require the organization to conduct an environmental impact review.  In addition, Alexander said he is prepared to use his position on the committee that oversees Corps funding to write additional legislation to block the district from being able to fund restrictions.

Outside of the local region other districts have been complying with the regulation for more than a decade using a variety of methods such as physical barriers, buoys and signage.  The restrictions are already an accepted safety practice at many Corps dams across the country.

The regulation that mandates restrictions promotes safety and security, reduces liabilities to the government, and allows personnel to operate hydropower, water management and locking operations without impedance, according the Nashville District website that provides information about the restrictions.

The Nashville District announced in a news release Dec. 13, 2012 it intended to stop its condition-based restrictions and comply with Corps directives that call for the full restriction of waterborne access and keeps the public away from dangerous areas near dams.

The current conditions-based policy attempts to keep fishing boats away from the dams during spilling, power generation and locking operations, but allows access when waters are calm. However, it’s the “20 percent of the time the tracks are not clear,” by Alexander’s example, that the fishing crews still want access.  This is when the oxygenation in the water is rich and the fishing the best. It’s also the most dangerous time to be near a dam and when most accidents occur. People often clear the area when instructed, but sneak back into the hazardous areas where the fishing is abundant, Corps officials have noted.

Enforcement is difficult for the Corps when people sneak into an area that has already been cleared, which is like news reports where a person ignores a train warning sign and lights, attempts to rush across, and then gets hit by the train.

Fishing experts that are in vigorous opposition of the restrictions have also been seen in videos setting poor boating safety examples near dams.

In a recent Tennessee Wild Side fishing report below Cordell Hull Dam, it features a safety sign on the dam structure that indicates that it’s dangerous to anchor a boat.  Yet in the video the fishing crew, which includes outspoken opponent and radio host Doug Markham, actually anchors the boat.

Another YouTube video has Dr. Jon Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Agency, standing on the front of a fishing boat, which is shaking in turbulent waters below McAlpine Dam on the Ohio River.

During a public information meeting at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 5, 2013, Lt. Col. James A. DeLapp, Nashville District commander, said the restrictions are about compliance, safety and security. He also took time to dispel rumors such as the Corps plans to ban fishing on the Cumberland River.

“Fishing is not banned at all at any of our projects,” DeLapp said during the meeting.  “That’s a very small but important point.”

DeLapp said only about 15 percent of the federal tailwaters where hazardous water conditions often exist near the dams need to be restricted to ensure public safety. Also, fishing from the banks and casting from the boundaries is still permitted.

Since 2009, three fatalities, one serious injury and 10 year misses and rescues caused the Nashville District  to reevaluate its compliance with ER 1130-2-520.  A review team determined the district was not in full compliance (See the district’s website with information about the restricted areas around dams).

David Davis, a resident of Greenbrier, Tenn., is a proponent of the restrictions and spoke with the Corps Nov. 27, 2012 about when his boat capsized in spillage below Cheatham Dam in Ashland City, Tenn., June 26, 2010.  His close friend and fishing buddy lost his life that day.  Davis was revived by CPR after literally walking on the bottom of the Cumberland River and then drowning himself (See his full statement on the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System).

“The water anywhere up there is so dangerous.  If you’re caught in it and you don’t have your big motor running you don’t have a chance,” Davis said.  “I should have been dead… I’m all for them putting restrictions of 250 yards below the dam.  I can understand people wanting to fish, but the hazards outweigh the fun.”

Davis is probably one of the few people alive who has ever been sucked underneath the currents by a dam and lived to tell about it.  Conversely, after the press conference, the senator admitted to the media he has never fished below a dam.

Nonetheless, Alexander called the Corps’ restrictions unreasonable and said the restrictions by the Nashville District would “destroy remarkably good recreational opportunities and many jobs” at the 10 dams being affected.

Randy Davis, a fisherman from Adams, Tenn., attended the senator’s press conference and supports the concerted effort to keep the fishing areas open for recreation.

“I really enjoyed what he (Alexander) said.  He had a good statement to make,” he said.  “I mean that’s my belief also.  I don’t think they (the restrictions) need to be in place.  I mean I understand having the restrictions for the safety fix.  But as long as the dams are closed (not spilling) I believe you should be able to fish up there if you want to.”

Ed Carter, executive director for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, joined Mike Butler, Tennessee Wildlife Federation chief executive officer, to oppose the restrictions after the senator spoke.

Carter said TWRA has always been the state agency charged with boating safety and it’s his belief keeping the dams open is important for recreation and to the state’s economy (See his full statement regarding the Corps of Engineers plan).

“We want to make sure that both of those are addressed,” Carter said.  “And our message to the Corps has been, ‘we believe that there are other methods, other alternatives that aren’t being explored at this particular time that will leave both the boating safety intact and also open the recreational fisheries that are some of the absolute finest in this part of the state and anywhere actually in the southeast.’”

Butler stressed that the Supreme Court ruled 250 years ago that fish and wildlife in this country are owned by the people. And the state of Tennessee passed a resolution in 2010 to preserve the right of its citizens to hunt, fish and harvest game.

“And this simple and profound decision is the underpinning behind everything that makes our model for wildlife management the best in the world and why we have to have access to our resources, these waters and these fish,” Butler said.

Alexander added that the restrictions are based on a Corps policy and reasonable adjustments ought to be a possible where both sides can agree on a solution.

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