TWRA says it won’t enforce Corps dam restrictions

Larry Woody • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 11:03 PM

Despite widespread opposition, the U.S. Corps of Engineers is proceeding with plans to block boating access below several of its area dams, but the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says it won’t enforce the restrictions.

“We will not be enforcing the barricades,” TWRA official Doug Markham said. “We have told the Corps this for months.”

The Corps’ precise plan remains hazy. Originally it intended to block off the restricted areas by stretching cables from the lock walls to the bank. Now it apparently plans to simply install warning buoys.

If cables were installed, boats would physically be prevented from entering the area and no enforcement would be necessary. However if only warning buoys are used, boaters could defy them and enter the restricted waters. In that case, it would be up to officials to enforce the restrictions with citations or other measures.

The TWRA patrols the area lakes controlled by the Corps: Old Hickory, Percy Priest, Cheatham, Dale Hollow and Cordell Hull and is responsible for enforcing regulations.

Fishermen complain that banning access to the churning waters immediately blow the dams would deprive them of prime fishing areas, especially for such species as rockfish and sauger.

The Corps claims the water is so turbulent during periods of generation that it is unsafe for boaters. It says 14 drownings have occurred near the dams since 1970.

The TWRA and others dispute the Corps claim, noting that some of the accidents can’t be attributed to the fast water, and that many more drownings occur in calm areas of the lakes than below dams.

The TWRA has opposed the Corps blockage plan from the outset. Several politicians, including U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, also oppose the plan, calling it expensive (almost $3 million) and unnecessary.

Once Alexander joined the battle against the plan it was assumed the Corp would drop it, since it is funded by the Federal government and is subject to Federal oversight. However, last week the Corp announced that it is proceeding with the project.

On the heels of the Corp announcement came the statement from the TWRA vowing not to enforce the restrictions.

That could set the stage for an unprecedented battle between state and federal authorities over the management of the state’s natural resources: does the TWRA have the authority to defy (or in this case refuse to enforce) a regulation imposed by a federal agency?

For example, eagles are a federally-protected species, and killing one is a federal offense. If the TWRA disagreed with the feds that Tennessee’s eagles need protecting – as it disagrees with the Corps’ dam restrictions – does it have the authority to refuse to enforce the federal regulations?

The TWRA has a long history of successful wildlife management. Now it is butting heads with a federal agency over how to manage Middle Tennessee’s tailwaters.

Unless the TWRA or the Corps of Engineers backs down, an intriguing battle over jurisdiction is brewing.

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