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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Water management imperils lower White River habitat

by Bryan Hendricks | July 18, 2021 at 2:13 a.m.

Because all things in the outdoor world are connected, let's examine what happens when you twirl your finger in the White River.

Two emails last week from friends on the north and south ends of the White River got us thinking about the intense degree of human manipulation on all aspects of the White River system. We call Arkansas "The Natural State," but it's not really. Far from it, actually.

One email was from Steve Dally, a Tasmanian native who relocated to Cotter to start Dally's Ozark Fly Fisher guide service. Let that sink in for a minute. New Zealand has produced the past two world-record brown trout, but Dally likes it better in the Ozarks. The presence of trout, a non-native species, is a product of the White River's first major alteration.

Dally hinted at the evolution in fly fishing techniques that has occurred since the Corps of Engineers established a minimum flow of water into the Bull Shoals tailwater in 2013. You can't fish it the same way you did before minimum flow.

Before minimum flow, the water in the Bull Shoals tailwater got very low in the summertime. Low levels of dissolved oxygen and high water temperatures killed trout and limited the fishery's potential.

Minimum flow became reality about the same time that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission won a landmark lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers for damaging state-owned timber at Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area near Augusta. For years, the Corps continually released large amounts of water from Clearwater Lake in Missouri, inundating bottomland hardwood forests downstream, notably in the WMA.

The Game and Fish Commission won the lawsuit because the Corps had deviated from its congressionally authorized policy for the lake to release large amounts of water into the Black River over sustained periods of time.

The minimum flow protocol in the Bull Shoals tailwater is also a congressionally authorized operational plan. It took the Game and Fish Commission more than 20 years to persuade Congress to modify its water management policy for Bull Shoals Lake, and to physically modify Bull Shoals Dam and Norfork Dam to provide the additional water for their respective tailwaters.

Modifying the water management policy required raising the pool level in Bull Shoals Lake significantly, which means it takes a lot less inflow to raise the lake to flood pool. Consequently, and as a result of the wet weather cycle we're experiencing, the Corps must release large volumes of water into the tailwater frequently to allow the lake to perform flood control function.

This constant influx of cold water has significant repercussions far downstream, to Clarendon and below.

A reader in Biscoe wrote this: "My family has farmed in the lower White river bottoms, where the Cache merges with the White, for 3 generations. I know the rise and fall of the river as well as anyone. I am now 60 years old and I am witnessing drastic manmade changes that seemingly has escaped everyone's attention except those of us impacted by them.

"Obviously, there are occasional floods that cause problems," the reader continued. "However, a quick search of the geological records concerning the river stages will demonstrate that the Lower White river has been over flood stage, over 50% of the time for the past 36 months! That's unheard of!! It has been years since rice (a staple for ducks in the flyway) has been planted in much of the lower White delta. Cropland that has been farmed for generations, providing abundant wildlife food supplies, has gone idle over the past few years. To demonstrate this catastrophic change, one only has to look at the timber and wildlife, as it is exactly as one would see in Bayou Meto. As far as wildlife is concerned, if it lives only on land (rabbits) they are now nonexistent.

"This area is being DESTROYED by maintaining the White river, as it is today, within 2-3 feet of flood, then any rainfall of 2 inches or more puts it right back into flood again. The Average July 4th five year level on White river at Clarendon is 25ft. Flood is 26. This ain't right."

A well-credentialed source corroborated our correspondent's observations. He said that the degree of timber damage in the lower White River exceeds that in Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.

The Corps is blameless for damage that results from a congressionally mandated water management policy.

In contrast, the Corps was held responsible for damage that resulted from deviating from policy on the Black River.

There does not appear to be a remedy.

Print Headline: Water management imperils lower White River habitat

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