Powerful politicians are putting pressure on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to scuttle a plan to restrict access to a hot fishing spot up close to Wolf Creek Dam.
Among the latest to object to keeping fisherman 500 feet away from the base of the dam is Senator Mitch McConnell. In a strongly worded letter dated February 12, McConnell objects to both the planned restrictions and the cost of implementing the no-access areas. However, at this point there is no indication the Corps is changing its plan.
During an informational meeting January 24 at The Center for Rural Development, fishermen mingled among politicians and public officials, almost all expressing opposition to implementing a no-access area in the tailwater immediately below Wolf Creek Dam. Fishermen say the area close to the dam is one of the top five fishing spots in Kentucky.
Political pressure was immediately applied to head off the Corps’ plans.
Kentucky Senator Chris Girdler during the informational meeting called the restrictions a “job killer.” He said “ ... fishing here means jobs here. This is more than a safety concern. This is a job concern.”
Congressman Hal Rogers met the day after the informational meeting with Lt. Col. James A. DeLapp, commander of the Corps’ Nashville District, to express his concern and opposition. A representative from Gov. Steve Beshear’s office requested information about research done that was basis for the regulations.
McConnell, in a letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army (Civil Works), wrote:
“In addition to the negative impacts USACE's (United States Army Corps of Engineers’) plan would have on recreational fishing and tourism in these communities, I am told it would cost the federal government some $3 million to implement.
“With a federal deficit above $16 trillion and counting, I believe it would be irresponsible to unnecessarily spend an additional $3 million in taxpayer dollars on an initiative to which local communities are vigorously opposed and that would harm Kentucky's economy,” McConnell’s letter said.
The Corps apparently has not changed course. Tom Hale, operations manager for Lake Cumberland, said assessments of the situation at the Corps’ 10 projects are still under way. He didn’t give a timetable for implementation of the restrictions at Wolf Creek Dam, but said a public notice will be issued before barriers below dams are put in place.
The impression given at the informational meeting was that the restrictions are a done deal. Matter of fact, the gathering at The Center was to give information. It was not a public hearing.
DeLapp said since 2009 there have been three fatalities, one serious injury and 10 near misses/rescues in hazardous waters downstream from Corps-operated dams. He said the Corps has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-court settlements for these mishaps.
The district commander emphasized the Corps is simply following regulations enacted during the 1990s; regulations the Nashville District up to now has not put in place.
The commander said he wanted to dispel rumors, one making the rounds that the Corps is banning all fishing. The restricted areas will be small compared to the entire tailwater below the dams on federal property. Fishing and boating will still be allowed in these non-restricted areas, Delapp said. The Corps will continue to allow bank fishing in all areas that were previously approved, including areas adjacent to some restricted areas.
Restricted areas at Wolf Creek Dam will be 500 feet from the dam in the tailwater and 500 feet on the upstream side of the dam. All forms of water access within the restricted areas will be prohibited including boating, swimming and wading. DeLapp said the regulations will be in place no later than June.
McConnell said in his opinion the Corps should work with communities on an alternative proposal to ensure safety while allowing access to waters that responsible anglers have safely fished for years.
The senator said local officials have suggested one such alternative is for USACE to focus its efforts on the rare occasions when the dam gates are open and spilling –– apparently the only time the waters present an active danger.
“I stand ready to work with affected communities and the Corps on alternative proposals that would protect Kentucky’s anglers’ access to these prized fishing waters while ensuring prudent safety practices,” the senator wrote.
McConnell’s sign-off to the letter: “ Thank you for your attention to this matter,” seems to suggest the powerful Senate Republican expects to get the Corps’ attention.
A copy of McConnell’s letter was sent to DeLapp.