Fisheries Conservation photo
Sen. Mitch McConnell, right, fishing the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge in Marshall County, Kentucky with the crew of the Kentucky Afield television show._

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday he planned to introduce legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on the Corps of Engineers’ plan to restrict boating and fishing access below its 10 dams on the Cumberland River system in Tennessee and Kentucky.

McConnell, the Senate minority leader, expects the bill to get Senate approval by voice vote today (May 16) and then move quickly through the House by way of the suspension calendar, a fast track legislative tool for non-controversial bills. He also predicts quick and uncontested presidential signage.


In a telephone interview with McConnell Wednesday evening, the veteran lawmaker said the moratorium would quickly halt what he and other legislators see as blatant government overreach. Co-sponsors of the bill and outspoken critics of the Corps’ plan include Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is also a co-sponsor.

Whitfield initiated legislative action to stop the Corps by introducing the Freedom to Fish Act in February.

“I think this is just sort of the nanny state on steroids,” McConnell said. “The government is assuming that fishermen are so stupid that they don’t know not to fish in the waters below the dam when the dam is spilling. It’s as if we were all idiots.”

On Wednesday afternoon the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act, which includes wording from the Freedom to Fish Act that will effectively place a permanent moratorium on the Corps’ plan.

“The water resources bill has in it a permanent ban on this activity by the Corps or anyone else,” McConnell explained. “But in order to deal with the immediate threat we have a two-year moratorium which should give time for the water resources bill to become law and then it will be a permanent moratorium.”

The Corps of Engineers’ Nashville District announced late last year that it planned to prohibit boating access from 500 to 1,000 feet below nine of 10 dams on the Cumberland River system (the 10th dam, a headwater structure, would have a 150-foot no boat zone). The Cumberland rises in eastern Kentucky then flows through Tennessee before turning north through western Kentucky to its confluence with the Ohio River. Six dams are in Tennessee and four – including Barkley, the largest and arguably the most productive of the 10 tailwater fisheries – are in Kentucky.

The Corps has sited public safety and a need to be in full compliance with a 1996 regulation as reasons for the restrictions.

Opposition was immediate and nearly universal. Fishermen, state fishery officials and local business owners, each of whom directly or indirectly either fuel or profit from the sport fishing industry, complained that the proposed restrictions would put the river’s most productive fishing waters off limits. Everyone agreed that during periods of high water, tailwater conditions can be dangerous and should be off limits. It was the Corps’ insistence on a 24/7 ban that sparked anger, resistance and, ultimately, congressional action.

Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources lobbied for a compromise with federal officials, but when the Corps wouldn’t budge, TWRA chief Ed Carter and KDFWR director of fisheries Ron Brooks said their respective agencies would not enforce the new restrictive zones if they were established.

Congressional outrage soon followed, including two public and well-attended meetings spearheaded by federal lawmakers; one at Old Hickory Dam near Nashville lead by Senator Alexander and one at Barkley Dam in April that was organized by Congressman Whitfield and attended by Senators McConnell, Alexander and Paul.

But the Corps was apparently not open to compromise and unfazed by Congressional anger. It began placing buoys to mark the new restrictive boundaries earlier this month with the announcement that when all the markers were in place the restriction would take effect. The Corps’ originally planned to use a cabling system to mark the no boat zones but later decided against the cable, opting only for buoy markers. The original projected cost of the no boat zone markers, cables and signs was $2.6 million.

McConnell was asked about the need for additional restrictive areas to boost public safety, which the Corps says is its “number one priority.” There have 14 known tailwater drownings on the Cumberland since 1970, including three since 2009. The three victims since 2009 were each wearing life jackets, which are required by state regulation. Five of the known 14 victims fell from shore. The Corps’ current plan would continue to permit bank fishing within the no boat restrictive zone.

McConnell readily agreed that one death is one too many, but disagreed that placing public waters off limits would boost safety.

“You could make a safety argument that people shouldn’t be on the lakes at all,” the Kentucky lawmaker concluded. “The fatality rate on the main lakes is much worse that it is below the dam, which tells you initially that these are very experienced fishermen who are fishing below the dams. They know when to be there and when not to be there. But we don’t need any protection from the federal government that has the practical effect of shutting down some of the best fishing we have.

“We don’t need to be protected, in effect, out of some of the finest fishing in America and particularly in Kentucky and Tennessee.”

When contacted Wednesday morning, the Corps’ Public Affairs Specialist, Lee Roberts, declined to comment on “pending or proposed legislation.”

Go here for more information about the Corps plan, including maps of the Cumberland River no boating areas.

Here’s the link to regulation ER 1130-2-520 which the Corps cites as providing authority for the boating restrictions on the Cumberland.