Local & Regional
Fri November 2, 2012
No Simple Fix for River Development
The vote on Vision 2 is just a few days away. The biggest portion of Tulsa’s quality of life money would go to improving Zink Dam and constructing a new dam in Jenks on the Arkansas River.
So it’s no surprise that as the election approaches, here in Tulsa, there’s a call we’re hearing more and more frequently: to put water in the river.
For Tulsans, it’s not a new desire. But as it turns out, the concept that a river ought to be filled with water isn’t so simple.
A Special Ecosystem
Fifteenth and Riverside, looking out over the Arkansas River, doesn’t exactly feel like the kind of exotic locale where you’d expect to find an endangered species.
As it turns out, however, there is a threatened bird that makes its home right here on the river, at least for part of the year.
John Kennington, president of the Tulsa Audubon Society, points out Zink Island, “which is a sand island in the middle of the Arkansas River.”
“This is an area that the least terns use to nest on,” he said.
That’s interior least terns he’s talking about, Tulsa’s very own endangered bird. The tern is a small species of bird that’s currently flown South for the winter.
But Kennington says, when they’re here, “they like to nest on a sandy gravelly open area, so the Zink Island gives them some really good habitat for their nests.”
You won’t find that kind of habitat on a river like the Mississippi. That’s because the Arkansas River, in our area at least, is a special kind of waterway, known as a “braided prairie stream.”
“Most of the time it’s a little trickle,” said Ed Rossman, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District. “You have sandbars all over the place, and little streams that kind of go through.”
“Then when the floods come,” he said, “it really becomes big, and it’s gigantic, could be over a mile wide.”
Rossman says our prairie stream isn’t exactly in its natural state anymore. The Keystone dam, built for hydropower, and to protect us from those mile-wide floods, has altered the river’s character in Tulsa County.
But how best to mitigate inevitable environmental impacts is up for debate.
Gaylon Pinc, with the Project Management Group, works on Vision 2025 River projects.
2025 didn’t include enough money to construct any additional low water dams on the Arkansas, just to study their possible environmental effects.
Pinc recognizes the challenges of working on a prairie stream. He says it doesn’t necessarily make sense to say we should put water in the river.
“Probably a better way to phrase that would be, ‘Keep water in the River,’” he said.
He says the way forward is clear: that the aesthetic and ecosystem of the river will continue to diminish unless Zink Dam is improved, and more low water dams are built, for instance, in Jenks.
“If you like what you see, you know, a scoured riverbed, no vegetation, banks eroding,” he said, “it’s just going to work its way on downstream.”
He says current plans include mitigation of negative environmental effects, like building another island for the least terns. But the terns aren’t the only species dependant on the river.
Chris Whisenhunt, fisheries biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, says the Department is opposed to any new dams on the river.
He says that sediment buildup in Zink Lake has created water quality that’s too poor for some of the river’s most important species fish. He says Zink Dam should be improved if possible, because it’s a safety concern, and because updates might improve water quality.
He also says the Department would welcome better dam designs, but that it’s skeptical whether that would actually happen.
“Currently our only example of what will happen to the Arkansas River is what
Zink Lake is right now,” he said, “and that is a very poor habitat for most of our sport fish.”
Ed Rossman says the Corps of Engineers would welcome whatever solution is best for the ecosystem, whether that’s low water dams or something else.
John Kennington hopes that whether or not voters decide to advance the dam money in Vision 2, we keep realistic expectations about what the Arkansas should look like.
“We want to make sure that as things are developed,” he said, “that we don’t overdevelop it, and just turn the whole thing into some manicured English garden.”
“We need to leave a portion of it as is,” he said, “because there’s a lot of beauty to be had with the habitat in its natural state.”