FRANKFORT — U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell helped net a victory Wednesday for fishermen near Cumberland River dams, including Wolf Creek Dam in Russell County and Lake Barkley Dam in far Western Kentucky.
McConnell, along with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., successfully sponsored a measure in the U.S. Senate aimed at stopping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from enforcing controversial restrictions near dams along the Cumberland River in Kentucky and Tennessee.
"Many Kentuckians are struggling in this economy and the last thing they need is the nanny state shutting down a critical local resource," McConnell, R-Louisville, said in a statement.
The measure passed as part of the Water Resources Development Act. It now goes to the U.S. House for its consideration.
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The legislation basically would prohibit the corps from enforcing fishing restrictions near the nine dams on the river. The corps has banned fishing from boats 500 feet above and below Cumberland River watershed dams, saying the move is for the safety of boaters.
Outraged anglers bemoan the loss of the prime fishing spots, where differences in water temperatures caused by the dams create ideal conditions.
"Fishermen should have the right to fish near Wolf Creek Dam," said Richard Jefferies, who owns and rents three cabins on Wolf Creek. "I would encourage them to be sure to wear life vests while fishing near the dam, but I think it's safe."
The corps has said there have been three fatalities, one serious injury and 10 near misses or rescues in hazardous waters downstream from corps-operated dams since 2009. It also said the corps has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in out-of-court settlements for these mishaps.
The corps does not comment on pending or proposed legislation, said Bill Peoples, a spokesman for the corps in Nashville.
McConnell met last month with local elected officials, anglers and local residents at Lake Barkley to hear their concerns regarding the corps' plan.
He was told that the corps' proposal to install barricades and to block access to areas which are popular with anglers in Kentucky would have a major impact on the communities near the dams.
McConnell said he took action because the corps, without cooperation or explanation, continued its plan to block fishing access to the tailwaters of these dams.
"Many in our state have depended on these waters for years and it's outrageous for the federal government to make such a decision with complete disregard for the people affected most directly by the policy," McConnell said. "Blocking fishing access to the tailwaters of Lake Barkley and Wolf Creek will not only rob fishermen of a beloved pastime, it will also impair tourism in the area and negatively affect the Kentucky economy."
Raymond Cotton of Princeton said he often fishes the Cumberland River, especially near Lake Barkley.
"It makes sense to me what the Senate did and I hope the House does likewise," he said. "When electric generators are turning at these dams, there are warnings and you are supposed to get out.
"Smart fishermen leave. Some people don't but that's their fault."