By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
It’s not often that Somerset’s own Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers has had positive things to say about the actions of President Barack Obama. When it comes to Lake Cumberland, however, an exception may be made.
On Monday, Obama signed into law the “Freedom to Fish Act,” which effectively blocks the U.S. Corps of Engineers from restricting access to prime fishing spots near the recently-repaired Wolf Creek Dam.
For Fifth District U.S. Rep. Rogers, the legislation is a step in the right direction for his home turf around Pulaski County, one of the major centers of the Lake Cumberland region.
“The ‘Freedom to Fish Act’ becoming law is a great way to start off the summer at Lake Cumberland, securing access to some of the best fishing spots near the dams along the Cumberland River,” said Rogers in a statement released Monday. “At Wolf Creek Dam, fishing and boating enthusiasts can expect to have one of the best seasons in six years with the completion of the $600 million rehabilitation project and higher lake levels,” the Congressman continued. “Thanks to a bipartisan, multi-state effort, this new law prevents physical barrier installation and makes sure Kentucky’s waterways are open.”
Kentucky legislators had fought hard to prevent the Corps of Engineers from erecting barriers to prevent fishing in the tailwaters, seeing this as a potential threat to the economic livelihood of an area that depends largely on lake tourism — which includes fishing.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Louisville, the GOP’s Minority Leader in the U.S. Senate, sponsored the bill in that body of Congress. After being passed there May 16 and in the House of Representatives on May 21 (in an effort led by First District Rep. Ed Whitfield of Western Kentucky), all that remained was Obama’s signature for the bill to officially become law.
The “Freedom to Fish Act” puts a two-year moratorium on any barriers that would block access to tailwaters. The House has not yet taken up the Water Resources Development Act, which includes a permanent ban on implementing barriers.
The moratorium provides extra time for the other bill to make its way through the channels, with McConnell and its supporters hoping it will become law as well.
“I appreciate the President signing the legislation into law and reversing the administration’s decision to place barriers and restrict fishing along the Cumberland River,” said McConnell in a statement released Monday. “No one I know in Kentucky supported this plan — not fishermen and boaters, not local elected officials, and not the Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife.
“I saw that firsthand when I attended the Freedom to Fish Rally with local leaders at Barkley Dam in April, where I had a chance to talk with many area fishermen and business owners about the disastrous effect the Army Corps plan would have had on their livelihoods,” he continued. “Today, their voices were heard and the administration’s plan to install barriers along the river will stop.”
Much like the Barkley Dam meeting, the Lake Cumberland area proved resistant to the Corps’ plans. During an informational meeting January 24 at The Center for Rural Development in Somerset, fishermen mingled among politicians and public officials, almost all expressing opposition to implementing no-access areas close to Wolf Creek Dam.
Fishermen say the area near the dam is one of the top five fishing spots in Kentucky.
Kentucky’s Junior Senator Rand Paul of Bowling Green also released a statement Monday indicating his support for the passage of the provision.
“I am pleased Freedom to Fish has been signed into law — and I know I am
speaking for many Kentuckians when I say that,” said Paul. “The livelihoods of many business owners and fishermen were at stake, but because of this legislation's enactment, they will continue to enjoy the freedom to fish without the bureaucratic overreach of the Army Corps.”
The Corps announced the first of May that it would begin placing buoys and signs to restrict fishing and water activities close to Wolf Creek Dam and nine other Corps-operated dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries. The restricted access at all dams was supposed to be in place by late spring or early summer.
Lt. Col. James A. DeLapp, the Corps’ Nashville District engineer, said at the time that since 2009, there have been three fatalities, one serious injury and 10 near misses and 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.
DeLapp also emphasized following the early May decision that the Corps is following regulations enacted during the 1990s that had not put in place previously.