MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

August 16, 2012

Deal to protect trout fishing

Fishery advocates say agreement good, but short of a permanent fix

— Federal officials inked a deal for a project designed to temporarily protect the trout fishery in the Illinois River below Tenkiller Lake Dam.

The project will include the installation of a special low-flow pipe from an existing surge tank located at the dam. A super-saturated dissolved oxygen system will be installed below the dam.

These two systems, along with multi-agency steps that will be taken, are being touted as important interim steps to sustain the downstream trout fishery. The systems are designed to offset the loss of water that resulted after leaks in the gates at Tenkiller Lake Dam were fixed and sustain a fishery that contributes up $4 million annually to the area’s economy.

Scott Hood, president of Trout Unlimited’s Oklahoma chapter, said he is excited about the progress. His excitement, however, was tempered by the fact the project still falls short of a long-term solution.

“I still consider this as a short-term fix,” Hood said about this week’s developments. “We are very concerned about where this goes from here. We don’t know how long we can borrow the water needed for the project before it evaporates.”

Hood said once the project is completed, it should prevent future fish kills because state wildlife officials will be able to inject fresh, highly oxygenated water as needed.

“I am happy they have managed to get this part done,” Hood said. “But it is still a short-term Band-Aid. It will be nice when and if we get allocations” to permanently support the trout fishery.

Ross Adkins, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the contract was awarded Aug. 8 to a Glenpool company. Adkins said project completion is expected by late September or early October.

Jim Burroughs, regional fisheries supervisor with the Oklahoma Wildlife Department, said both steps are in the right direction. He said the system will help with water management while still meeting the needs of the trout fishery.

“We have been in better shape this year because (hydroelectric generation at) Tenkiller has been a top priority for Southwest Power Administration,” Burroughs said, noting the accompanying increase in amount of water discharged into the lower Illinois River. “We have been able to conserve what little water we have, but oxygen levels are not as high as we would like, and the temperatures are a little higher.”

But overall, Burroughs said conditions are “considerably better than last year,” when a large fish kill occurred as a result of reduced levels of dissolved oxygen. The lack of oxygen was attributed to the lack of fresh water entering the stream, but the project should help some on that end.

Col. Michael Teague, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa division, praised the multi-agency efforts and those who were instrumental in taking these first steps to sustain the trout fishery. Teague singled out SWPA and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for special recognition.

Those agencies are cooperating to implement solutions Corps officials say could not be accomplished by any single agency. SWPA covered the low-flow pipe and dissolved oxygen system, while the Corps performed the design, acquisition and contract management.  

State wildlife officials will maintain and operate the dissolved oxygen system, monitor river conditions and request releases when needed from the low-flow pipe. Using funds donated by Trout Unlimited Oklahoma Chapter and Tulsa Fly Fishers, ODWC installed several stream gauging stations to help monitor the stream.  

Because there is no permanent storage in Tenkiller Lake allocated to the trout fishery, water releases will be from storage donated by three stakeholders: the Sequoyah County Water Association, Tenkiller Utilities Authority and Lake Region Electric Development. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board has provided temporary water rights to ODWC.

Barry Bolton, ODWC fisheries chief, said the combined efforts of the agencies will improve the management of an “important resource” that “generates more than $2 million annually for the economy of northeast Oklahoma.”

Fritha Ohlson, a civil engineer with SWPA’s hydrology division, said the steps being taken will give wildlife conservation officials more options in how the donated water storage can be used to benefit the fishery below Tenkiller Dam.

“They also provide tools to conserve valuable water resources for all purposes during times of drought,” Ohlson said in a media release issued by the Corps.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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