Making noise, saving trout

Low flows on the Lower Illinois: lethal for trout

By Randy Scholfield

When is a river not a river? When it doesn’t have any water.

That was the situation on the Lower Illinois River in Oklahoma, in the almost 8 miles of tailwater trout fishery below Tenkiller Dam.

The Illinois is a fun and diverse fishery, say local TU members, where you can catch everything from bass and bluegill to rainbow trout, on any section of the river you’re on.

But as Scott Hood recently told TU’s Mid-South regional meeting, the tailwater section became seriously degraded a few years ago when a “fix” of a leak in the dam created less inflows, oxygen-starved waters, and algae blooms.

Several fish kills followed. “There were dead fish everywhere,” said Hood. “We were shocked.”

Hood, past president of TU’s Oklahoma Chapter, rallied the troops to do something about it.

They contacted the Southwestern Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers, which operated the dam. At first, nothing happened. So they began writing letters, and emailing their state delegation, raising awareness and pressing for a solution.

“We started making some noise,” said Scott. “And we didn’t take’no’ for an answer.”

Their grassroots lobbying and persistence led to two big improvements: Dam operators last year installed a bypass pipe that can provide some flows when the dam is not releasing water for hydroelectric generation.

They also installed an aerator that helps oxygenate the waters close to the dam. For their part the Oklahoma Chapter donated $10,000 to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for monitoring of river conditions downstream.

It was an impressive victory.

Still, there’s more work to be done, says Hood. The aerator helps prevent a fish kill in the upper pool near the dam—but it’s not enough to ensure a healthy river downstream.  And the minimal releases from the flow pipe at times just aren’t enough to keep the water cold and moving.

That’s the next goal—securing an agreement that guarantees sufficient flows to keep the Lower Illinois healthy for trout along its 8 miles of tailwater.  

I have no doubt that the Oklahoma TUers will get this done. They simply won’t take no for an answer.

Randy Scholfield is communications director for TU’s Western Water Project.

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