Another Dam in the Arkansas River? In Tulsa? Why?

The Oklahoma chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has joined several other local conservation organizations to raise concern at a proposition brought forth by the City of Tulsa to add an additional dam to the Arkansas river.  We’ve asked both the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the US Army Corp of Engineers to carefully review this proposition and consider joining us in requesting an environmental impact study.  

The letter below was submitted by Josh Johnston, a former ODWC Fisheries expert.  Josh spent 19 years working for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation as a Fisheries Biologist. Most of those years, Josh worked on the Arkansas River near this location.  Josh conducted research on shovelnose sturgeon, a rare an imperiled species within the Arkansas River.  To use his words, “they’re hanging on by a thread”.  Josh also worked with Sauger, a native cousin to the walleye.  Sauger are also present at this locale but now require supplemental stocking due to habitat fragmentation (In most cases man-made dams). For the angler, the presence of a healthy population of Sauger, creates a unique fishing opportunity.  Additionally, Josh managed the self-sustaining striped bass population on this stretch of the Arkansas River.  That population has attracted anglers in pursuit of Striped Bass, to this location for decades. He has an intimate understanding of this river and the people who use it. Josh is a member of the Oklahoma Chapter of BHA and we agree with his concerns on this proposal.  This now-rare prairie ecosystem and important angling opportunity are at risk.

If you share in our concern for this resource, we urge you to reach out to the City of Tulsa or our partners in conservation, the ODWC and USACE.  

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, (918)596-7411

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, (405)521-3851

US Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa office, (918)669-7366

Letter from Josh Johnston:

Another dam in the Arkansas River through Tulsa, why?

I will be the first to admit, the Arkansas River through Tulsa is not the wild prairie river it once was. Keystone Dam has smoothed the peaks and valleys in discharge, and decreased the frequency and magnitude of floods, but that old prairie river is not completely lost. In fact, it’s a lot closer to the natural conditions of a prairie river than you might think.

Prairie rivers are characterized by harsh conditions and irregular flow. They exhibit a high frequency of flood and drought, but outside of these extremes, prairie rivers generally have shallow braided sand channels; about like the Arkansas River through Tulsa looks today. The reach included in the project area of the Jenks/South Tulsa Dam exhibits these traits and represents a significant portion of what little natural prairie river habitat is left in the Arkansas River. This low-water dam would not only destroy the habitat in this area but would jeopardize stream function by interfering with sediment transport. Zink Dam – an existing low-water dam eight miles upstream of the planned location for the South Tulsa/Jenks Dam - should serve as a case study for this project. Zink Lake is a biological wasteland, and the river below Zink Dam is eroded to bedrock.

Habitat fragmentation caused by dams is among the biggest threats to freshwater ecosystems, as, among other things, it limits fish from migrating up and down stream. The dams across our landscape have caused extinctions, extirpations, and are the main reason many of the species inhabiting this area of the Arkansas River are of special conservation concern. Due to water impoundment by dams, most of the Arkansas River today is a lentic environment (still water), and not supportive of many native fish, invertebrate, and plant species. The South Tulsa/Jenks Dam project area is located within a reach of the Arkansas River that provides valuable habitat to many native prairie river species including Shovelnose Sturgeon, Sauger, Paddlefish, American Eel, Shorthead Redhorse, and White Bass. The non-native Striped Bass also utilizes the area and is very valuable both economically and recreationally. These species require large expanses of flowing water to complete their life cycle, and thus persist in the area. Most of these species produce eggs and/or fry that require days of drifting while they are suspended in the water column and immotile. If these eggs or fry settle out in the sediment, they perish. For some of these species, we are already sitting on the knife’s edge in terms of expanses of unobstructed flowing water. The loss of eight more miles of this river will be detrimental to the fishery and cannot be mitigated.

In short, dams spell demise for aquatic ecosystems and the organisms that live therein. Some dams are necessary, they save human lives, create electricity, and store municipal water supplies. The South Tulsa/Jenks Dam will do none of these things. It is purely cosmetic and will further destroy what we have left of a native aquatic ecosystem in the Arkansas River. The Arkansas River is full of life; Sauger, Paddlefish, Shovelnose Sturgeon, and American Eel all rely on this river. Least terns nest and raise their young on those “ugly” sand islands. Bald eagles nest and rear their young on its banks. These species are not equipped for the changes this dam will bring. Look around the U.S., as other states are tearing down dams to beautify the landscape and restore natural ecosystems. Why are we constructing a new one? This river may not look perfect to you, and it is not a perfect example of a prairie river, but it is close; close enough to still support the lives of many species that knew this river before we did.


About Josh Johnston

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