By Mike Owen
(TNS) — Depending on the outcome of Congressional budget negotiations, the U.S. Coast Guard station in Eufaula could be closing, according to the officer in charge there.
In addition to the possible closure of the station, the Coast Guard has “thinned out” the number of channel-marking buoys and riverbank markers that help boaters stay in the channel between Eufaula and Columbus.
Chief Petty Officer Patrick Haughey said he was not able to speak much to the changes, saying so much is dependent on the final fiscal 2015 federal budget, which has not been finalized.
“They have been thinned out as they are no longer needed because of the commercial traffic that is not traversing the area,” Haughey said.
He said he could not confirm whether the buoys are continuing to be removed.
Chattahoochee Riverwarden Roger Martin said there is no doubt that removing channel markers will make navigating the river more difficult, but the Coast Guard is not authorized to maintain and mark channels solely for recreational boating, only for military and commercial vessels.
“There is no barge traffic on the river on that section,” Martin said. “The last barge came up the river to Columbus in 2000.”
With fewer or eventually possibly no markers between Eufaula and Columbus, recreational boaters will have to take more care to stay in the channel, Martin said.
“It will be difficult to navigate the river without navigational aids,” Martin said. “But you can still get down that river. You have to slow down, look at your depth charts.”
Martin said he hopes a political compromise could save the station in the same way the locks at Lake Eufaula were saved.
“I would love to see the navigational aids stay,” Martin said. “It is a pretty treacherous river if you don’t know where you are.”
U.S Rep. Sanford Bishop, who was instrumental in the compromise that kept the Lake Eufaula locks open, said his staff has been in touch with area stake
holders, who held a recent meeting to discuss the potential impact of removing the channel markers. He said it might come down to the state or local governments or even the private sector to take over maintaining navigational aids.
“This is something that needs to be discussed with both the Alabama and Georgia delegations and with our state counterparts,” Bishop said. “State and local governments do perform these functions in various other parts of the country.”
Bishop said it will be important that government at some level maintain the channel markings because of the potential impacts of having an unmarked river.
“It will have an impact on tourism, on property values and public safety on the river,” Bishop said. “We certainly want to do everything we can to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people who use the river from Georgia and Alabama.”
Martin agreed that if the Coast Guard stops marking the channel, that doesn’t mean someone else can’t step in.
“A lot of lake associations, like Lake Lanier and West Point Lake, that maintain their own private navigation aids,” Martin said. “There are waterways all over the country that have navigation aids that are maintained by city governments, county governments, the state.”
Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs Jr. said the economic impact of not maintaining channel markers in Lake Eufaula could be significant. Fishing tournaments are big business on the lake, attracting anglers from a wide area.
“Fishermen come and they spend multiple days,” Tibbs said. “While they’re here, they stay in hotels, they go to restaurants, they go to convenience stores, they buy gas, oil and groceries. They spend a lot of money when they come here. That’s an important aspect of our tourism business.”
©2014 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC