River issues approach a tipping point at Oklahoma fly-fishing mecca

TULSA, Okla. — It’s a cloudy, misty Sunday morning in January and Scott Hood called his catch as the fly fisherman stood in the clear, gently flowing water of the Lower Illinois River near Gore.

“Always cast to a rising fish,” he said, as his line curled through the gray morning toward the water and his “fly that catches everything” – a wooly bugger variation – dropped gently near ripplets left by a rising rainbow trout.

“Come on, take it,” he coached a trout he could feel playing with the fly as he retrieved his line bit by bit. The hiss of line springing taut between fish and fisherman as it whipped up out of the water soon followed, Hood’s rod bowed and he said, “Ah, there he is.”

Another one of countless rainbow trout Hood catches week after week on the river near Oklahoma’s “Trout Capital,” an hour’s drive from Tulsa, came to his net and was released to play another day.

Winter is a “no worries” time – and a great time – for fishing the Lower Illinois River, Hood said. But for a guy with no worries, he sure has a lot on his mind lately, such as summertime on this river and how that time of year hurts the fish.

“In the winter, it doesn’t matter as much. It’s cold and the water has plenty of oxygen and the fish do fine,” he said.

May through November, it’s a whole other story. That’s when the river suffocates in the heat. It gets thirsty but has no permission to drink.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with managing the “conservation pool” behind Tenkiller Ferry Dam, and 100 percent of that water is allocated to public and private entities – 93 percent of it to Southwest Power Administration. For the past several years, water to support the lower river was “borrowed” from the now-defunct Sequoyah Fuels utility company under conditional approval of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which ruled that if a municipal water company needed it instead, the arrangement would be canceled, the Tulsa World reported.

That day has come and the river’s clock is ticking on an 18- to 24-month deadline, Hood said.

Water for the Lower Illinois has spun through a legal, regulatory and financial morass for decades and, finally, this deadline may push it to a tipping point where a permanent solution must be found.

Hood, active in Oklahoma’s Trout Unlimited Chapter 420 and on the national Trout Unlimited board of trustees, is among several who have sounded the alarm. He recently created a Facebook group, “Water For The Lower Illinois River,” to inform and “rally the troops” should they be needed.

“We had about 700 people sign up the first week,” he said.

State Rep. John Bennett and Sen. Mark Allen held a late-December meeting on the topic at Bennett’s Sallisaw office that was attended by Hood, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation officials, Chris Horton of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and a congressional representative, Hood said.

Another meeting is planned for later this month at U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin’s office with representatives of Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford’s offices coming, as well, according to Allen.

The crux of the matter is that when the dam was built there was an oversight regarding the river that flows below Tenkiller Lake, past the town of Gore and into the Arkansas River.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered to stock rainbow trout as a mitigation measure for damming the stream, but someone forgot, didn’t bother or didn’t realize that they needed to allocate water for the river, as well.

For many years, a leak through the dam provided enough water to help the trout get by most of the time. In 2008, that leak was fixed. Predictably, hot weather, low flow and low oxygen levels led to a news-making fish kill of trout and native fish soon thereafter.

That’s when the water “loan” was worked out. Since then, Wildlife Department biologists, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers technicians and Southwest Power officials have worked together, almost daily at times, to keep the river’s fish alive in those worrisome summer months.

“That failure to dedicate water for the river has haunted us for years,” said Barry Bolton, assistant chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Department.

It’s not just the year-round trout fishing, but trophy striped bass and other fish, the riverside habitat and recreation in the area that rely on at least a minimal flow of water in the river, he said.

“There is an answer to this,” Bolton said. “I know we can find something that works for hydropower and fish and wildlife and the community, and we can get that working and underway.”

Sen. Allen said more than a $5 million annual impact to the community is at stake, and his constituents are well-grounded in their concerns.

The solution is tricky, however. A federal study, required for reallocation among the lake-water stakeholders, could cost millions and take years. The same goes for raising the conservation pool level in Tenkiller, which would need to rise another 18 inches or 2 feet, he said.

Arkansas solved a similar problem in the White River by raising the normal conservation pool level of Bull Shoals Reservoir 5 feet, but it took years and millions of dollars, Allen said.

“It takes an act of Congress,” he said. “This time, we’ve got Chris Horton of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation with us, too, and he’s been through this in Arkansas with issues on the White River. We’re just trying to keep this thing alive and find a permanent solution.”

Another option is to work something out with Southwest Power as the majority water rights holder.

“The tricky thing is to work out something permanent in writing,” Allen said.

Hood has been the state’s No. 1 civilian activist on the Lower Illinois for years. He shakes his head at the regulatory and financial complexities that arose from a problem that – at first blush – seems so basic.

“The dam leaked for years and years and they never missed a generation day, nobody ever missed that water and they managed it,” he said. “The logical thing is, in a way, to just let it leak again. When we had the fish kill, we spent the money, $800,000, for an airifier, a system that enhances the oxygen in water, and a flow pipe to bypass the dam. The infrastructure is there if they can just be allowed to run it whenever it’s needed to put water in the river, and it doesn’t cost anyone anything. I mean, you just can’t have a river without water.”

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