Congress Takes on Army Corps of Engineers to Protect Fishing Access on Cumberland River

Over the past few months, we've followed the controversy surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intent to close down tailwater areas on the Cumberland River to fishing access.

To recap, the Corps seems to have suddenly determined that allowing anglers to access these areas poses an imminent threat to their lives and has hatched a plan to block those areas off it claims is mandated by a 1996 policy on public safety. The facts, of course, don't support the Corps and its own website bears that out.

The corps’ site claims that 881 deaths have occurred on Corps property since 1970 with 14 of those being drownings in tailwater areas – less than two percent of all fatalities.

Public outcry over the closures has been loud and clear. Those public comments have thus far fallen on deaf ears and, in fact, the Corps' site answers the question of whether public opposition will be considered quite clearly with the following statement: "No, regulatory guidance requires us to establish restricted areas for the hazardous waters around dams. The Corps understands this change in policy may be unpopular for some visitors but public safety is paramount regarding all project operations."
But the Corps may see its efforts stymied by legislative action.

On March 23, a budget resolution amendment sponsored by U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker and Rand Paul along with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was passed that will not simply delay the Corps action, but prevent it entirely by stripping the $2.6 million slated for creation of the barriers below dams from the Corps' budget.

“This amendment sends a clear message to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: that it should stop wasting $2.6 million in taxpayer money enforcing these unnecessary and unreasonable fishing restrictions,” Alexander said in a media release. “Instead, the Corps should work with the wildlife agencies in Tennessee and Kentucky to develop a sensible plan to promote public safety when water is spilling through the dam.

“The tailwaters are only dangerous when the water is spilling through the dam, which on average is about 20 percent of the time. Closing off the tailwaters 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.”

While the budget amendment could put a decisive end to the current battle, Alexander and other legislators are hoping to enact legislation that will prevent the Corps from future actions that would impair angling access.

McConnell, Paul, Alexander, and Corker have also introduced Senate Bill 421. Known as the "Freedom To Fish Act," the bill would prevent the Corps of Engineers from taking any action to establish a restricted area prohibiting public access to waters downstream of a dam, and for other purposes.

On the House side, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, introduced House Resolution 826 which mirrors the Senate version of the Freedom To Fish Act.

Both the House and Senate bills are currently waiting to be brought up in committee. The likelihood of that happening is low with full passage of the bills even lower.

The budget amendment stripping the Corps of the funding needed to enact the fishing closure, however, has a much better chance for success. Having already cleared the Senate, it must now make its way through the House. With the current state of the budget and sequestration in full effect, however, it's hard to imagine any legislator will be randy to push for a $2.6 million expenditure that the public has so vocally opposed.
So what's this all mean for those who love to fish the tailwaters of the Cumberland River?

The Corps may claim that your voice doesn’t matter. But Congress seems to be saying otherwise.