‘Transformational’ restoration project set for river in Clinton

By Tammy Keith Published September 23, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Clinton Mayor Roger Rorie saw the damage caused by the Archey Fork of the Little Red River flooding his city 30 years ago and the resulting flood-prevention work. Now he is working with the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas on a $2.2 million to $4 million improvement project that will restore the channel as a natural stream.

— Former Clinton Mayor Don Richardson witnessed the historic flood that devastated the downtown 30 years ago. He was mayor when work was done on the forks of the Little Red River to alleviate the problem, and now he’s working to restore the channel as a natural stream.

“It’s going to be transformational,” Richardson said.

The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas is spearheading the three-phase restoration project, which will cost a total of $2.2 million to $4 million.

A formal announcement is planned in conjunction with a cleanup of Archey Fork Park and the river bank, beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Rock and wood structures are going to be built to restore the 3.5-mile stretch of the river that the U.S. Army Corps of

Engineers dredged and channelized in the mid-1980s after the flood.

Richardson is the city’s volunteer floodplain administrator and a member of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The restoration project is one he has wanted to see since 2001, when he came back to Clinton after living in Washington, D.C., and noticed the erosion.

In December 1982, downtown Clinton flooded where the Archey and South forks of the river meet. It was, as Richardson put it, “a phenomenal event.”

Few homes were involved, but 200 businesses had water in them, ranging from a few inches to 9 feet, Richardson said in an earlier interview.

Clinton Mayor Roger Rorie said he marked the water level at 10 feet in his downtown auto dealership.

The Corps spent between $3 million and $4 million improving the Archey Fork and South Fork channel a few years after the flood.

It worked, Richardson said, but the banks of the channel, which were 100 to 200 feet wide, have eroded to 800 feet wide at some points, and the water is too low for fishing, swimming and boating.

“It’s flat and down to bedrock, so the silt has no place to go. By putting these structures back in here, it will … turn it back into a natural stream,” Richardson said.

Joy DeClerk, the river restoration program director for The Nature Conservancy, said underground wood structures will be built and buried at angles to the banks to provide fish habitat and protection of the banks while the vegetation is being replaced. Rock structures will guide water toward the center of the channel, away from the banks.

Speckled pocketbook mussel and yellowcheek darters disappeared from the Archey Fork after the channelization, Richardson said.

“They’re interested in putting habitat back in there,” he said of the conservancy.

The first two phases will be to restore Archey Fork to the confluence of South Fork, he said.

“Archey is the focus right now,” Richardson said.

The cost is estimated at $800,000 for the first phase and $1 million for the second phase, DeClerk said.

“We include project maintenance, so if we have to come in in the next five years and repair anything, we budget that in for contingency funds,” she said.

Work should begin in the summer on Phase 1, she said.

The cost of the third phase, work farther down the channel but still in the city limits, will depend on how extensive the work has to be. That phase is estimated to cost between $400,000 to $2.1 million for “full-scale restoration,” DeClerk said.

The city, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners are funding the project.

The conservancy’s project to restore the banks will take three or four years, Rorie said.

“That’s going to be a long-term project; that’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a huge boon for us.”

When all is said and done, the restoration will allow canoeing on the river in Clinton and boost tourism, the men said.

Richardson said the project will have the most positive impact at Archey Fork Park in downtown Clinton.

“It’ll be transformational in that you’ll be able to fish and kayak in downtown Clinton on the Archey Fork down there,” Richardson said.

Pete Giovannini, executive director of Van Buren County Economic Development, said he is impressed with the plan.

“What they want to do is basically undo the flood-control widening that the Corps did and bring it into a more defined channel,” Giovannini said. “It will end up putting water — short of a severe drought like we had this summer — in the channel almost year-round.

“I think it’s going to be a huge boon for the community here. I think what will end up happening, it will create enough of an interest in the Clinton, Van Buren County area on the west end of the lake that it will increase tourism significantly.”

Dwight Wilson, the city’s planning and zoning director, said of the restoration, “[It’s]going to put us on the map.”

“It’s a really exciting project; we’re really keyed up about it. This river, you’re going to be able to canoe it to Greers Ferry Lake,” he said.

He envisions canoe rentals and development that wouldn’t be possible without the restoration.

Richardson is ready to see the work begin.

“We’re still waiting on permits from the Corps of Engineers,” he said.

“We have to go through cultural clearance,” DeClerk said.

Archeological digs are being done on small areas because of the history of American Indians who lived in the area.

Also, an engineering firm is conducting “flood modeling” to ensure the restoration won’t increase flood elevations.

“The whole project does hinge on the flood modeling,” she said. “We’re very confident that the flood models will show we won’t raise the flood elevations for the city.”

The Clinton project is part of the conservancy’s statewide Rivers Program, launched in 2003 to bring together state, federal and private partners to address declining water quality in Arkansas streams.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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