Resisting Federal Overreach: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Proposed Ban on Tailwater Fishing

Sep 26, 2013

TWF CEO Mike Butler and Senator Lamar Alexander speaking at a press conference.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, with support from Tennessee Wildlife Federation CEO Mike Butler (left), spoke at a spring 2013 press conference related to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to restrict tailwater fishing in Tennessee. The USACE legislation was rejected.

More than a million Tennesseans enjoy fishing each year, with tens of thousands more traveling from around the nation to visit world-class tailwater fisheries below dams on a number of Cumberland River reservoirs.

Those incredible public resources—and the billions in associated economic impact—were slated to be eliminated in early 2013 through a unilateral directive from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District Commander Lt. Col. Jim DeLapp. Affected fisheries included Old Hickory, Cheatham, J. Percy Priest, Cordell Hull, Center Hill, and Dale Hollow, where a physical barrier would have been installed to keep boats from within several hundred yards of the dams.

While the Commander cited public safety as the chief concern, the numbers did not support such a drastic change. Of all the deaths that have occurred on Tennessee’s rivers and reservoirs over the last 50 years, less than three percent were below the dams. Nearly every one of those was the result of failure to wear or properly inflate a life jacket as required by law.

Mike Patterson served 30 years as the Corps of Engineers Resource Manager at Cheatham Lake in Tennessee and as Assistant Resource Manager at Lake Cumberland in Kentucky. As professionals with extensive knowledge and experience regarding tailwater safefy, Patterson and his staffs worked on water safety issues on a daily basis.

Patterson was quick to point out that over the course of his 18 years as Resource Manager at Cheatham Lake, there was never a single drowning of a boating fisherman in the tailwaters immediately downstream of the dam. Nor was he aware of a recorded drowning in the history of the facility previous to his stint.

Statistics throughout the District simply did not support the Commander’s proposal to prohibit thousands of safe fishermen from enjoying the quality fishing in the tailwaters immediately adjacent to our dams. His perceived safety issues are simply not realized by accident statistics and accident rates.

But boy, was he sticking to his guns on this issue.

Despite a long-standing agreement with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and a highly effective life jacket education and enforcement campaign, Lt. Col. DeLapp put the policy in motion without any public notice or input. In the Nashville Tennessean, DeLapp said that public meetings were not necessary.

However, after outcry from the fishing community and pressure from elected officials, two well-attended public meetings were held in Tennessee. Through it all, Tennessee Wildlife Federation helped align conservation organizations and supporters to attend the meetings, contact their elected representatives, and make it clear this would not be an easy one to slip past the sportsmen of the Volunteer state.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander took up the charge, calling a press conference with the Federation and TWRA that attracted major media attention, and, ultimately, held the Corps’ feet to the fire on the floor of the United States Senate. Begrudgingly, faced with the potential of funding being withheld, the Commander acquiesced. He has now moved on to a different duty station, and the people were able to continue utilizing the incredible public resource.

Few issues have generated as much consternation in the outdoors community. It truly appeared to be a solution in search of a problem. Considering the fact that these tailwater fisheries are so heavily utilized and are statistically some of the safest places to fish from a boat, the dramatic impact on our nationally-celebrated fishing waters was unacceptable.

Furthermore, the motels, restaurants, bait shops, gas stations, and other businesses in these communities that benefit from the resource would have been gutted. For all of these reasons, the Federation was proud to stand up for Tennesseans on this issue.

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