Officials talk new river rules

Published 11:30 pm Tuesday, September 18, 2012

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions followed through on his promise by sending a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Monday, addressing concerns he and the rest of the Alabama Congressional delegation had about the Corps’ decision to limit access to locks and dams along the Alabama River.

The Corps’ initiative, which will be implemented on Oct. 7, limits the use of locks and dams to commercial traffic by appointment only, and will not allow recreational traffic through the locks.

In the letter, Sessions said, “While we understand that the Corps is acting as part of a national initiative to prioritize these of available funds, it is troubling that the Corps seems to be acting unilaterally, without the substantial involvement of Congress or key stakeholders in a manner that will prevent recreational users in Alabama from navigating many parts of our state’s incredible network of waterways.”

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The letter recognized and stated appreciation of the willingness of the Corps to work with the congressional staff but stated, “Yet, upon reflection, we strongly believe the Corps should not proceed with implementing its level of service initiative in this manner.”

Key points in the letter include addressing the Corps’ lack of public notice and public hearings, addressing the need for available public use of the waterways on a reasonable schedule, addressing the fact that the Corps’ initiative runs counter to the recent decision made through the U.S. Department of the Interior to recognize the 631-mile long Alabama Scenic River Trail as a National Water Trail, and expressing the opinion that the Corps should not proceed with implementing the initiative in this manner.

While Sessions played a leading role in drafting the letter, it was also backed by U.S. Reps. Jo Bonner (Ala-1st), Martha Roby (Ala-2nd), Mike Rogers (Ala-3rd), Roger Aderholt (Ala-4th), Mo Brooks (Ala-5th), Spencer Bachus (Ala-6th) and Terri Sewell (Ala-7th).

“It was not a hard decision for me to join the efforts of my colleagues,” Bonner said. “The letter was really to follow up with the meeting that we had with the Corps a few weeks ago. It was to say, ‘Let’s not close the door to some new ideas, and see if there’s not a way to work through this and come up with an acceptable resolution. [A resolution] that doesn’t put a nail in the coffin of an important area of Alabama that doesn’t necessarily have access to the interstate system, doesn’t always have access to rail, but has been served since the beginning of time with a wonderful resource, that’s our waterways.’ The letter responds to the Corps by saying, first of all, we appreciate the concerns you’re facing, but input is always an important part of making a decision like this.”

“I signed on to Sen. Sessions’ letter for two reasons,” Brooks said. “First, to show support for Sen. Sessions’ effort and judgment, and second, because Alabama’s Fifth District includes the Tennessee River and I would want our North Alabama citizens and barge operators to be fairly treated, should we encounter the lock and dam issues now being faced in South Alabama.”

Roby said several constituents contacted her, concerned and confused about what changes the Corps was planning for the locks.

“My office had direct talks with Corps officials in Washington seeking to get to the bottom of the situation and clear up any misunderstandings,” Roby said. “The letter was an opportunity for the delegation to express our joint concern over the Corps’ operational changes and ask for more specifics about its plans going forward.”

The congresswoman added, “The impact of the Corps’ policy on operating locks is felt throughout Alabama, so it is important that the delegation speaks with one voice.”

Bachus and Rogers agreed. Rogers said the Corps should have been more engaged and Bachus recognized the importance of well-functioning waterways to both commercial and recreational development.

The Alabama delegation was united in their efforts to seek further understanding and express their thoughts to the Corps.

“I stand with my colleagues in the Alabama delegation,” Sewell said. “While I understand and appreciate the challenging fiscal and budgetary climate that forces the U.S. Army Corps to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize their spending and allocation of resources; this decision has important safety and economic implications for my district and the state of Alabama that warrants further review and consideration.”

The letter was addressed to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, at the Pentagon, and has yet to be seen by her, said Col. Reinhard Koenig of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Though the letter may have not yet been seen by its intended recipient, the Mobile District of the Corps of Engineers has agreed to listen to stakeholder comments Wednesday and to answer questions at an open public meeting at the Water Tower, 181 East Claiborne Street in Monroeville, beginning at 5 p.m.