Anglers say Zink Dam operations plan lacking

Tulsa City councilors consider community workgroup to address concerns

The Arkansas River near downtown Tulsa. (Photo by Shane Bevel)

For the CCOF

Several Tulsa City Council members want a closer look at the Zink Dam Project after hearing citizen concerns Wednesday.

A state biologist, conservationists, and anglers raised concerns about the $48 million project’s impact on fisheries and public health. Councilors said they need more information from engineers and other city officials. Several said a community working group involving stakeholders likely is on the horizon.

Five speakers offered five minutes of testimony each, including Charles Pratt, formerly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who delivered a posthumous testimony that Tulsa conservationist and former River Parks Authority board member Herb Beatty penned prior to his death in August.

“I wanted to be here today with some of my fly-fishing club members to convey my extreme disappointment and aggravation in regards to how this city has once again reneged on the promises they made to me, and to the citizens. Those promises included that the new dam would solve all the problems of the old dam,” Pratt said on behalf of his old friend.

The project promises to satisfy multiple and diverse stakeholders and meet ecological responsibilities. Apparently, no plan spells out exactly how, however.

Ecological, economical concerns

The speakers sounded alarms about water quality and public health. They noted promises to voters to help fish populations for sports fishing and threatened nongame species, such as shovelnose sturgeon.

“None of us are here trying to impede progress. None of us are here to fight the building of the new dam. We are all here because no matter where anyone politically, socially, or economically stands, negatively impacting this fishery is an ecological and economical crime against the citizens of Tulsa,” said Jake Miller, an avid angler and local brewery owner involved with the Facebook group Friends of the Arkansas River.

“We’re so excited that y’all came. We’re going to do something about this,” Dist. 4 Councilor Kara Joy McKee told Miller and others after the meeting concluded. “I’ve got a 2-year-old and I want her to learn how to fish. I want her to not believe it when someone tells her the water is safe when it’s not.”

McKee said councilors spoke in committee prior to the meeting and several councilors said they simply need to know more. They plan to meet with city engineers, River Parks Authority, and others about exactly what are the existing plans.

“A community working group is eventually what I would like to see,” she said.

A plan to make a plan

The challenge to meet the needs of all stakeholders in an era of demanding ecological awareness looms large.

Indeed, specifics of future operations of the dam and associated kayak flume are not yet on paper, said Matt Meyer, executive director of River Parks Authority.

While an exact arrangement is pending, the City of Tulsa did ask River Parks Authority to operate the dam, he said, but ultimately River Parks might not be the specific entity in charge. That is yet to be worked out, he said.

“All dam operations will be under the direction of the City, and subject to the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” he noted via email in a list of bullet points.

Meyers offered bullet points that note aspects beyond the City’s control, such as the river’s flow. The weather, federal regulations, and utility consumer demand control U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Southwest Power operations upstream at Keystone Dam.

In the city, anglers and wildlife watchers, Tulsa Rowing Club, Gathering Place, and Tulsa residents who voted for the dam because they want to see “water in the river,” all have their demands, he said.

In his letter, Herb Beatty said Tulsa officials could gain control of at least some volume of storage in Keystone Lake. A portion still is available and the city should buy it before someone else does, he wrote. Meyers said he was aware of that idea but there are hidden costs that would make that purchase unwise.

Josh Johnston, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation fisheries biologist, told the council he believes the dam can deliver as promised. However, no plan to assure stakeholders exists, he said.

“All I have seen is a plan that says there will be a plan,” he said.

Promises versus status quo

“This dam, although completely unnecessary, was supposed to be different,” Johnston said. “At the Department of Wildlife, since the original Zink Dam, we were told fish would be able to pass and sedimentation would come downriver. It didn’t work. So the Department of Wildlife has always been in favor of renovation if we couldn’t just tear it out.”

“That’s why I’m here to talk about the need for a cohesive operational plan, something that was supposed to come with this dam, something that was sold to everybody, not just the Department of Wildlife but all the constituents in Tulsa that this dam would allow for all these great things, so it’s not just an obstruction like the old dam.”

Meyer said he believes some misinformation is in play, that designers and city engineers have anticipated needs and created a sound project. Plenty of time remains to address specifics of an operations plan, he said.

River Parks officials care for fish and wildlife too, he said, and they would be “more than happy” to participate in joint discussions with City officials and others about a comprehensive plan.

But the Authority shouldn’t over-promise when it can’t control the weather or river’s flow, he said.

In one bullet point, he offered that no net harm should come to the fish populations, regardless: “RPA also notes that the old Zink Dam, in place since the early 1980s, has been a barrier to fish passage; therefore, the lack of a specific structural element in the new dam to allow fish passage will not impose an ecological or structural change to the river. It is a continuation of the status quo.”

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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