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Chris Racey, chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, recently said that the agency is permanently closing its caged fish facility at Lake Wilhelmina.

The reason, Racey said, is that the Lake Wilhelmina caged fish facility is old, obsolete and not cost effective. Other facilities are better positioned to absorb its production load.

Beverly Edwards of Oden is very happy to hear this news.

The Lake Wilhelmina caged fish facility contains a large bank of pens where catfish are confined and fed during the summer until they are big enough to be stocked elsewhere.

Edwards contacted us in July 2016 to explain how the caged fish facility had polluted the three-quarter mile portion of Powell Creek that runs through his property. He said that high concentrations of catfish poop and unconsumed catfish feed have accumulated on the lake bed, and that the waste enters Powell Creek through the discharge pipe at Lake Wilhelmina Dam. Edwards's property is only a few hundred yards downstream.

Edwards said that Powell Creek used to be clear, and that it held smallmouth bass. Edwards said it is now lifeless, and from what I saw, I believe him.

I toured the creek with Edwards on July 29, 2016. The water was brown and thick with particulates.

We were puzzled because the caged fish facility has been operating for decades, and there have been no complaints until recently. Why did it happen so suddenly?

In August 2016, Racey emphatically said that the caged fish facility was not responsible for any water quality degradation in Powell Creek. At that time he had no documented reason to believe otherwise.

The catfish food is measured and distributed in a formula that minimizes waste, Racey said, and very little of the food falls to the bottom to decompose.

Racey said that many Ouachita Mountain streams are subject to brown algae blooms in the summer when streamflow is minimal, and that abnormally dry conditions exacerbated the phenomenon in 2016. Iron oxide also leaches into Ouachita Mountain streams from the substrate, and it is more conspicuous during low flow, too.

Other streams in the area contained rusty looking water and brown algae, but they didn't look nearly as nasty as Powell Creek.

That might explain the situation for one summer, but Powell Creek has been continually polluted for multiple years.

Keith Sutton, a noted freelance writer and author from Alexander, echoed Edwards's assertion in a capsule about Lake Wilhelmina in an article about catfishing hotspots that appeared in a May 2007 issue of Arkansas Sportsman magazine. He wrote, "This lake is much more fertile than many Ouachita Mountain reservoirs, thanks to a caged fish rearing operation near the dam. Fish food and wastes from the operation enhance growth and reproduction of the lake's catfish population."

Sutton's opinion carries some weight in this regard because he was a longtime Game and Fish Commission employee and former editor of Arkansas Wildlife magazine.

At Edwards's insistence, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality collected water samples in 2016, but only at the Highway 8 Bridge. The ADEQ said the pollution resulted from runoff from the highway, which didn't make sense because the bridge is downstream from Edwards. Pollution doesn't typically flow upstream.

Edwards, a pugnacious, persistent gentleman, didn't buy it. He wrote many letters to Gov. Asa Hutchinson and others. One thing he demanded was that water samples be collected at the discharge pipe and from his portion of the Powell Creek.

Finally, the ADEQ collected samples from Edwards's portion of Powell Creek, from the mouth of the discharge pipe, from the spillway and from streams entering Lake Wilhelmina.

The sample from the discharge pipe contained fecal coliforms greater than 2,000 colony forming units per 100 milliliters, as did the sample from Edward's property. Edwards said the fecal material is catfish sewage. There is no other apparent source.

The tributary water and the spillway water tested much cleaner.

Additional samples were tested by Arkansas Water Resources Center Water Quality Lab at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The sample contained 1237.4 milligrams per liter of total suspended solids, which Edwards said were catfish sewage.

All of this roughly coincided with the AGFC's decision to close the facility.

We hope, for Edwards's sake and for the sake of environmental integrity as a whole, that Powell Creek quickly regains its health.

Sports on 10/29/2017

Print Headline: AGFC to close controversial Lake Wilhelmina caged fish facility


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  • Jfish
    October 29, 2017 at 7:21 a.m.

    Good job by Edwards for staying persistent. Additionally, I would say that citizens need to be concerned about pollution in all of our streams not just ones on their properties.