Army Corps Goes Ahead with Plan to Restrict Cumberland River Dam Access

Guest post by Gary Garth

The Corps of Engineers' Nashville District has begun placing what it describes as "permanent full-time waterborne restrictions" around the 10 dams on the Cumberland River system in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Buoys and signage will be used to mark restricted, no-boat zones that will extend from 500 to 1,000 feet downstream on nine of the Cumberland's 10 dams. Laurel River Dam, one of the smaller headwater structures, will have a 125-foot tailwater boating restriction zone.

The restrictions will keep anglers from reaching some of the most productive water on the river. Waters immediately downstream from the dams are rich with food and cover, are well oxygenated and are magnet areas for sport fish. Under the current Corps plan, bank fishing will be allowed within the restricted zones.

Corps officials expect the buoys and signage to be in place by summer and that enforcement of the restrictions will be effective "when the placement of buoys and sufficient signs is completed at each dam."

Who will provide that enforcement is uncertain.

As reported earlier here at fieldandstream.com, the Corps has cited public safety and the need to move into full compliance with a 1996 regulation as reasons for the restrictions. While Corps officials expect the restrictions to become effective this summer, the plan has met with strong opposition. Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources have suggested that their agencies will not assist the Corps in enforcing the no access zones.

"The boating restrictions below the Cumberland River locks and dams were set by the USACE and it will be their responsibility to enforce those areas," KDFWR director of fisheries Ron Brooks said through a released statement. "The KDFWR remains open to working with the USACE to find a compromise that would allow boating activity during those periods when water conditions are tenable."

TWRA executive director Ed Carter expressed a similar view.

"If there is a lot of water pouring through the spill gates we can understand restrictions on hazardous days," Carter told the Associated Press. "Otherwise, our boating accident reports indicate anglers have a good safety record below dams and we do not see a rational reason to prevent them from fishing there."

What this means for on-the-water enforcement is unclear. What is clear is the Corps' plan to proceed, even in the face of fierce congressional opposition.

One of the earliest and loudest complaints came from Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY), who introduced the Freedom to Fish Act in February after several attempts to work out a compromise with the Corps failed. Whitfield along with Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a raft of local politicians hosted a Freedom to Fish rally at Barkley Dam in March.

The Corps originally proposed blocking the no boat zones with shore-to-shore cables but the district office said they will not be installing those barriers "at this time," a decision that was of no apparent consequence to Whitfield.

"I continue to be extremely disappointed over the Corps' decision to proceed with the implementation of the 24-hour restricted areas," the veteran lawmaker said. "This announcement comes just as Kentuckians and outdoor enthusiasts are preparing for the summer recreation season and the only difference in their new policy will be the lack of a cable connecting the buoys on the barricade. I am continuing legislative efforts to remove the Corps' overreaching authority to restrict these areas."

Opponents to the Corps' plan agree that tailwater conditions are sometimes dangerous and boating should be restricted during those times. But they are opposed to year round restrictions and have repeatedly sought a compromise with the agency, but to no avail.

"Nothing has changed," added Brooks. "We've been working with our legislatures and we're going to keep working with our congressmen to get this reversed. It's going to take an act of Congress."

Go here for more information, 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.