Tulsa struggles with low-water dam operations puzzle

Can technology of $48 million Zink Dam satisfy broad river interests?

Construction equipment along the Arkansas River at the Zink Dam and Pedestrian Bridge area, October 2021. (KJBOutdoors photo)

For the CCOF

Conservation conflicts around low-water dams nationwide are on display in Tulsa, where a new $48 million dollar replacement for the 40-year-old defunct Zink Dam promised “better.”

Community members are at odds over what, exactly, that means.

Thousands of communities nationwide have removed out-of-date dams and restored natural rivers. Instead, Tulsans voted in 2016 to tackle the issue with new technology to create recreation opportunities.

Now, with the dam and a recreational kayak flume under construction, the biology of the native fishes, the hydrology of the river, worries about water quality, and the desires of conservationists, shoreline business owners, kayakers, rowers, and the local electric utility blend into a mind-numbing puzzle.

What will the river look like day-to-day and who will decide? Somehow, the community will have to put those pieces together before construction is complete sometime in late 2022 or early 2023.

Alarms and conflict

Anglers and conservationists aired objections to dam construction proceeding without an operations plan during an October City Council meeting. That gave rise to this week’s work session, meant to focus on a presentation by engineers and designers.

Residents argued the operations plan approved as part of the Clean Water Act permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacked key specifics.

An exchange between Tulsa City Engineer Paul Zachary and Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Northeast Region Fisheries Supervisor Josh Johnston illustrated the basic conflict.

One said the dam has the potential to re-open 17 miles of spawning habitat to native fishes. The other, primarily, wants to meet the demands of Tulsa voters by maintaining a recreational lake.

“I know Josh gets aggravated when I talk about adaptive management strategies,” Zachary said. Johnston replied, “there is a reason for that,” from the audience before being invited to take a seat at the table.

At the table, he said that while anglers are raising concerns, the issue is about ecology, not fishing spots.

“That river that we act like we care about, that is a river, let it be a free-flowing river for three months of the year and let it be a lake for nine months, I think that is a fair compromise,” Johnston told councilors.

That’s not a popular idea for a community building a low-water dam and a recreation lake, Zachary said. The idea violates a “prime directive to put water in the river and provide recreational opportunities at Zink Lake.”

Fish don’t compromise

Oklahoma native fishes can’t climb fish ladders like salmon and their egg-laying process require miles of in-stream flow. Eggs and new hatchlings, typically between the months of March and June, need miles of river to develop.

That basic condition is important for shovelnose sturgeon, paddlefish, saugeye, white bass, and striped bass.

Many native populations are more vulnerable than fish like catfish and crappie, which spawn annually. It may take years for them to mature. They might not spawn every year. They also need enough rainfall to keep the rivers flowing.

Newly hatched young of the shovelnose sturgeon float along for seven days after hatching. That can require many miles of a flowing river. Eggs and young won’t float over the top of a dam, he said.

Shovelnose sturgeon could easily be wiped out and are “on the knifes edge” for survival in Oklahoma, Johnston said. More spawning areas could help bring them back or at least sustain them.

The Arkansas River shiner, which was plentiful as late as 1955 according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no longer exists in its namesake river. That is primarily due to the series of dams along its course.

Discussions to continue

A better compromise exists, Zachary said. Tulsa Parks and Recreation Director Anna America will lead a new facility operations planning and programming for the city. Operational water-flow schemes can be devised based on Keystone Dam releases and engineers are crunching numbers.

Community meetings will be needed that include kayakers, restaurant owners, Gathering Place and Tulsa Rowing Club and others, he said.

“There are months that we have high flows and we can satisfy all the stakeholders,” he said. “There will be times during those March-June months that maybe we can, instead of laying down all the gates, maybe we can lower some gates for a period of time.”

He told councilors he should have real numbers and management schemes to discuss by the summer of 2022.

City Councilor Phil Lakin asked if any aspect of the new dam makes things worse for fish. The response from engineers was “no” and that the new dam should be “100 percent better.”

Given an opportunity for a final comment, Johnston laid out the position for the fishes once more. Letting fish migrate upstream and then closing those gates behind could be “100 percent worse” than a constant barrier.

“You do that and they’ll be gone,” he said of the shovelnosed sturgeon. “They are extirpated upstream and into Kansas and they disappeared down by Texoma and we could lose them here… Build a barrier, or make it work, and we have the dam that can make this work,” he said.

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.

The shovelnose sturgeon is the smallest of the ancient sturgeon species across North America. (Courtesy
USFWS Digital Library)

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