Research shows ‘safety’ probably warrants restricting boating access at hydroelectric dams

U.S. Coast Guard Boating Accident Statistics at dams in 2011

By Lee Roberts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 2, 2012) – A recent news report in the Tennessean  suggests a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District plan to restrict boating access to its hydroelectric dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries is under scrutiny by local fishermen, politicians and state wildlife officers. However, some good old fashioned research shows “safety” probably warrants such a measure.

Tennessean Reporter Mike Organ wrote, “A release from the Corps of Engineers public affairs office states the Corps ‘… is currently in the process of finalizing a plan to restrict boat access to hazardous waters directly upstream and downstream of all hydroelectric power plant facilities along the Cumberland River and its tributaries. When the plan is finalized, the Corps will release the information to the public.’”

As a result, there is a lot of chatter in a Tnfishing.com discussion room opposing restrictions and Tennessee U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander even sent a letter to the commander of the Nashville District Nov. 20 requesting a public comment period and consideration of alternatives before making any decision to restrict boating access at the dams in question.

In the letter, the senator wrote, “At a minimum, I believe that any change of this magnitude should be subject to a public comment period so those who enjoy fishing can have an opportunity to express their concerns and propose alternatives to improve public safety. Changes should only be considered after a thorough review of all public comments and suggestions.”

The Corps plans to provide more information about its plan sometime in December.  Meanwhile, people who have fished at these dams their entire lives are speculating about why it’s even necessary to restrict boater access to hydroelectric dams.

Although the Corps will no doubt provide its reasoning in the coming weeks, a little research into applicable federal and Army regulations, and a look at state resources and recent stories in the news may shed some light on possible reasoning for posing restrictions.

Engineering Regulation 1130-2-520, Chapter 10, dated Nov. 29, 1996, is titled “Restricted Areas for Hazardous Waters at Dams and other Civil Works Structures.”  It provides Corps policy on this subject, “Restricted areas prohibiting public access shall be established for the hazardous waters immediately upstream and downstream of all Corps-owned locks and dams, flood control dams, multi-purpose dams, re-regulation structures, and any other structures with similar hazards to boating or visitor safety.”

In addition, Title 36 states that “Vessels shall not be attached or anchored to structures such as locks, dams, buoys or other structures unless authorized by the District Commander.”

These references, which are all available to the public, seem to indicate that the Nashville District is required to restrict boating access above and below dams.

The report by the Tennessean adds that “The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency encourages fishing below dams because the swift current is ideal for several species of fish that are unable to survive in the reservoirs and further downstream on the rivers and creeks.  It also states, “Several times each year the TWRA stocks trout beneath the dams solely for fishermen to catch.”

TWRA encourages fishing by the dams, but that is completely opposite of what the agency’s own educational resources advise people that take the organization’s mandatory boating safety class.  A close look at the Tennessee Boating Handbook, the official boating handbook of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, reveals its stance, “Fishing and boating immediately below any dam is dangerous and should be avoided.”

The handbook gives the following reasons for this position:

  • “Large volumes of water can be discharged within a matter of seconds through hydroelectric dams due to the demand for electricity or flood control.
  • Many upstream and downstream areas around dams are designated as restricted areas, and boaters should refrain from entering those areas.
  • Cold water released through tributary dams may be a hazard, even during the summer.  Cold water temperatures (below 77 degrees Fahrenheit) can cause cold shock, short-term swim failure, or hypothermia.”

Safety seems to be the reason TWRA advises citizens in its classes to avoid boating below dams.

According to a U.S. Coast Guard report there were eight reported accidents at locks and dams with four deaths and six injuries in 2011.  A similar report issued by TWRA for 2011 (not to mention prior years) does not even identify accidents at locks and dams in any category of any statistic reported.

A simple Google search of news reports popped up several accidents at dams in Kentucky and Tennessee in 2012.

In a Chattanoogan news report Sept. 13, a fisherman from Oliver Springs drowned near the weir dam in the Clinch River below Norris Dam.  WKMS reprinted a Paducah Sun story in its Nov. 30 web edition reporting that a Grand Rivers man, who was wearing his life jacket, died in a boating accident at Barkley Dam “when the water’s current pulled his boat underwater.”

Another possibility for posing restrictions is if the Corps allowed fishing at dams, which is unsafe based on boating safety resources in this article and is also against applicable regulations, it could also possibly pose liability issues for the federal agency.

The Post-Gazzette reported Nov. 28 that the federal government settled a lawsuit with the families of several men who died and a woman injured when their boat capsized below Dam Number 3 near Harmar on the Allegheny River April 10, 2010.

Although the reason for litigation involved an absence of warnings of hazards, the premise could possibly apply to similar accidents near hydroelectric dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries.

There may be other reasons the Corps will reveal for restricting access to its dams, but it would seem safety is a powerful reason based on information already sourced in this article.  More supporting safety information is available from other federal agencies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, and even foreign boating safety organizations.

According to the TVA website, “Even if you’re an experienced boater, angler, or swimmer, it pays to know the signs of rising water and the rules you should follow to ensure your safety.”  It also says, “The closer you get to a dam, lock or powerhouse, the more hazardous it can be.”

The Canadian Online Boating Course also emphasizes the dangers of getting too close to dams.

“A spot that looks calm and safe one moment can become dangerous within a few seconds as water levels and flows change, often without warning.  Calm waters or a dry riverbed could change quickly with rapidly moving, dangerous waters,” according to course materials.

The course also indicates that hydroelectric dams are sometimes remotely controlled by operators far away.  “Throughout the day and night, as demand for electricity rises and falls operators open and close dams, and start and stop generating units.  This results in frequent and rapid changes in water levels and flows around dams and generating stations, changes that can affect the safety of those who venture too close.”

The above reports and references are well established and are supportive of reasoning that dangerous conditions exist near industrial dam complexes, and imply public safety outweighs any recreational argument for having unimpeded access to these waters.

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