Polk Bayou, Batesville’s secret stream

Susan Varno/Contributing Writer Published November 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Susan Varno/Contributing Photographer

These rock formations are near the White Drive Bridge.

A gentle stream flows past forests that hug the sandy shoreline. Here and there are dramatic rock formations. Birds swoop and sing; deer drink from the clean water. This isn’t some remote location. It is Polk Bayou, which meanders through Batesville to empty into the White River.

KAIT-TV Jonesboro called the stream “Batesville’s best-kept secret.” For the past year and a half, the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce has been working with the city government to make the stream easier to access and navigate. The biggest problems are two sewer pipes that cross the stream — one above water level, the other just below the surface.

“Polk Bayou is an asset in our backyard that is underutilized,” said Crystal Johnson, president/CEO of the Batesville Chamber.

In 2010, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism awarded the city a $15,000 grant to do a feasibility study on how to develop Polk Bayou for tourism. The chamber raised $15,000 in matching funds from community sponsors. The city and the chamber commissioned Arkansas State University’s Delta Center for Economic Development in Jonesboro to conduct the study.

“Their report said if we could provide access and exit points, we could promote the use of the bayou,” Johnson said.

The Delta Center Feasibility Study Polk Bayou Project estimated that up to 10,500 people would use Polk Bayou for floating

and fishing each year. With boat rental and other expenses as high as $220 per person, this could bring in more than $2 million a year in revenue for the city.

“FTN Associates did part of the study,” Johnson said. “They are an environmental engineering firm in Little Rock referred to us by Parks and Tourism. FTN determined that the water quality was very clean.”

“What the bayou has is ‘flat-water paddling,’” she said. “There is not a lot of current, no rapids. The bayou can be used by people looking for adventure and outdoor recreation — boating, canoeing and kayaking. And you can take your family and not have to worry about tipping over. We have a lot of tourists who are retirees. We can make the stream easily accessible for everyone.”

Polk Bayou also offers some attraction for history buffs.

The original settlement at Batesville dates back to at least an 1814 trading post.

“The original settlement was along Polk Bayou, which was then called Poke Bayou. The stream appeals to tourists interested in genealogy and history,” Johnson said. “And there are people who want to study the river’s ecology, plus the fishermen.”

Currently, the chamber and the city have two goals.

“Removal of the two sewer pipes is the top priority,” Johnson said. “You can float the river with the pipes in place, but it is not comfortable to pull your canoe out to walk around. The upper sewer pipe will be removed within the next few weeks. The lower pipe is scheduled to be removed within the next 18 to 24 months.”

The chamber’s plan is to develop the four miles from the White Drive Bridge on Arkansas 69 to where the bayou empties into the White River. The feasibility study recommends that the city apply to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for designation as an Arkansas Water Trail. This designation requires three access points. Small city parks are already located at each end of the bayou.

“At White Drive Bridge, you can get your boat into the water,” Johnson said, “This site needs to be more user friendly so you don’t have to climb over the rocks to get to the water access. We also need a third exit point where tourists can pull out and visit Main Street if they wanted to. They could have a short float or a longer one. The city owns some property along Main Street next to the bayou that might be developed as an exit point.”

Sam Cooke is chairman of the chamber’s Polk Bayou Committee.

“The bayou is prone to flash flooding because of the hilly area it drains. This July, it rose 12 to 15 feet above its current level.”

His committee has held open meetings for people interested in developing the bayou. There was a positive response from the Arkansas Canoe Club, Friends of the North Fork and White Rivers, local residents and organizations.

Cooke said an additional goal is to develop the stream’s fish population. Today, smallmouth bass, catfish and some largemouth bass live in the stream. He has been working with a Game and Fish biologist to schedule a survey of the bayou’s fish population and the stream banks.

“We encourage local residents to organize Stream Teams,” Cooke said. “The Batesville Explorer Scouts and Boy Scouts conducted a cleanup float this year, as well as a group from Ruddell Hill Baptist Church.”

Recently, Cooke went along on a survey and sampling of the stream with molecular biology professors Tim Lindblom and Mark Schram from Lyon College in Batesville.

“They are doing an aquatic-life sampling in the stream bed. Their preliminary results indicate significant sensitive aquatic species in Polk Bayou. That’s not fish. It’s the benthic organisms that live on the rocks in the stream. When they see a variety of these species, it means the water is good.”

The chamber encourages landowners along Polk Bayou to become involved in the bayou project.

“We’ve had meetings with landowners,” Johnson said. “A majority have been very supportive of the project. They agree that tourism is important to the economy. Their concern is abuse of their property.”

Cooke added that landowners want a say about any development that takes place.

“They want to see Polk Bayou protected. They don’t want development to encroach on their homes and yards.”

Locally and regionally, people can get involved in saving Polk Bayou.

“If you are interested, let us know,” Johnson said. “Serve on the committee, help with cleanup days, help with research, or offer ideas and suggestions.”

“We encourage people to float the stream now,” Cooke added. “See what’s out there. Enjoy the stream. The more people we see on the stream, the more involvement we will see in this project.”

For more information, visit www.mybatesville.org/tourist-information, or contact Crystal Johnson at (870) 793-2378, Sam Cooke at (870) 307-8922 or sdcooke22@hotmail.com, or Rusty Elumbaugh at (870) 307-3554.

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