By Jay Harrod, April 2007
On Arkansas’ tourism Web site, arkansas.com, the Buffalo National River is described as having “fast, clear, oxygen-rich water with the kind of gravel bottom and boulder beds smallmouth bass love.”
The description is found on the site’s “canoeing/kayaking/rafting” section that includes information about 18 streams considered ideal for paddling. In addition to learning about each stream’s degree of difficulty, available outfitters and fishing opportunities, one can also read about each stream’s scenery. Not surprisingly, most of these descriptions promote the fact that the streams have clear water.
Despite the truth behind these descriptions, the future of many of these streams is…well, a bit murky. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, several water districts and The Nature Conservancy among others consider sedimentation to be one of the biggest threats – if not the biggest threat – to Arkansas’ most pristine streams, including many of those highlighted on arkansas.com.
“One of the most attractive characteristics of Arkansas streams – its mountain streams, in particular – is their clarity,” said Debbie Doss, conservation chairperson of the Arkansas Canoe Club. “Clear water makes them beautiful.”
While the club is primarily a recreational one, Doss said its members are also concerned with stream conservation, and many participate in clean-ups the organization plans each year.
“We’ve always realized that if we want to have rivers to enjoy, we have to be interested in conservation, or the source of our obsession might disappear,” she said.
Unfortunately, Doss knows firsthand just how quickly a clear stream can disappear. She grew up near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, and as a child she regularly swam in the Illinois River and its tributaries.
“The water was absolutely clear,” she said. “In the summer you could go to a pool 10 to 15 feet deep and see the bottom – see gravel that didn’t have algae on it. And you could count the fish. It was like looking through glass.”
During college in the late ’70s, Doss said she’d even scuba dive in the river. “I’d sit on the bottom and bathe in the sun’s rays bouncing off the bottom,” she said. “I’d be surrounded by hundreds of fish. It was like diving in a coral reef.”
About 10 years later, Doss returned to the same spot while in graduate school. “It was two to three feet deep at most. You couldn’t even swim in it,” she said. “Now the Illinois River is murky and green, full of sediment and algae.”
Outside of ruining the aesthetic qualities of streams, Doss said sediment can make them shallow and “braided,” which, of course, isn’t conducive to floating.
Buford Suffridge, a North Little Rock dentist, sadly tells a similar tale about the Fourche LaFave River, which runs through Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains and the town of Perryville. Suffridge grew up in Perryville, and today the Fourche serves as a boundary to the forest and farm land he owns there.
Suffridge, 66, described swimming as a child in water that had a rocky bottom and “was crystal clear” at Tyler Shoals, just upstream of Perryville on the Fourche. Suffridge said a couple of years ago, he and his wife took a flat-bottom boat upriver from his property.
“I know we passed Tyler Shoals, but I couldn’t tell you when,” he said. “We didn’t see a rocky bottom anywhere. When we could see the bottom, all we could see was mud.”
The reasons behind the changes to the Illinois and Fourche LaFave rivers, according to Suffridge and Doss, are strikingly similar. Suffridge said that in the ’60s, hundreds of acres adjacent to the Fourche were clear cut.
“They cleared it right to the river,” he said. “They even pushed trees into the river.”
Doss said that fields cleared “to the very edge” of the Illinois have caused its banks to become unstable, to literally fall into the river after heavier rains. Doss also points out that gravel mining, which has been a topic of debate for years, most notably involving Crooked Creek, also negatively affected water clarity in the Illinois.
Their observations are supported by scientific conclusions drawn by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and The Nature Conservancy, as well as by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. The lesson is simple: rivers and their tributaries must have trees and vegetation along their banks in order to keep the earth in place and out of the water. And the larger this strip of vegetation – known as the stream’s riparian zone – the better.
At the Mulberry River, The Nature Conservancy is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore a quarter-mile of stream bank habitat along the river in Franklin County. The Conservancy is conducting similar work at the Strawberry River, where it also has a demonstration ranch to showcase environmentally compatible grazing practices that can increase the economic returns of cattle operations while improving water quality. A big component of this work is creating wells and erecting fences to keep cattle from entering the river and destroying its riparian zones when doing so.
“It doesn’t take a lot of research to know that unpaved roads are a major source of sediment in streams,” said Tim Snell as he surveyed the Mulberry River after a heavy rain. Snell, The Nature Conservancy’s associate state director for water resources in Arkansas, was standing downstream of a low-water gravel road crossing. As water from the road rushed into the stream, the clear-running water suddenly turned muddy brown. “Unfortunately, many people don’t realize the damage sediment causes in a stream.”
The Mulberry is renowned among outdoor enthusiasts as a prime spot for smallmouth bass fishing. But smallmouth, like most game fish, are sight-feeding fish that need clean, clear water. At the other end of the food chain are insects, larvae and smaller fish that live in gravel beds, which can quickly fill with sediment, choking out any inhabitants.
It does take a lot of research and work, though, to prioritize streams and problem sites and develop measures to reduce sediment runoff. At the Mulberry River, for example, the Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service have inventoried about 225 miles of unpaved roads. The inventories, which involve documenting and mapping road conditions and other characteristics such as culverts, low-water crossings and badly eroded ditches, are vital to identifying problem areas and developing better management practices, which can be applied to other Ozark watersheds.
The Conservancy’s Ozark Rivers Legacy Program and its Ouachita Rivers Program, which bring together state, federal and private partners to address water quality issues, have worked to improve the health of several of the state’s most popular float streams. Among them are the Kings River, Buffalo River, Mulberry River, Spring River, Crooked Creek, Caddo River, Ouachita River, Cossatot River and the upper Saline River.
Collectively, these streams harbor an incredibly rich array of wildlife. For instance, 23 aquatic animals in Ouachita Mountain streams, including 12 crayfish, eight fish and three mussels, are found nowhere else on Earth. Within the watershed of the Strawberry River – the state’s most biologically diverse stream – there are 108 fish species and at least 330 recognized classes of aquatic invertebrates.
“Mussels are important to canoeists and kayakers. Mussels – like paddlers – thrive in clear, clean water,” said Arkansas Canoe Club’s Debbie Doss.
“Working to protect the smallest creatures – creatures like insects and mussels – goes hand-in-hand with protecting sport fish, scenic beauty, water clarity and drinking water for humans,” Doss said. “It’s comforting to know that our federal and state agencies as well as non-profits like The Nature Conservancy are working together to keep our rivers healthy.”
Arkansas is blessed with an incredible abundance of water resources in its streams, rivers, reservoirs and aquifers. With 52 inches of annual rainfall, nearly 83 million acre-feet of water falls on or passes through Arkansas each year. Although only four million acre-feet of water is presently used by communities, agriculture and industry, water supply is already becoming a much-discussed issue in Arkansas.
Many of the most pristine and important streams in Arkansas have a special designation protecting them from potentially detrimental actions such as damming and gravel mining. They are designated by the State of Arkansas as “Extraordinary Resource Waters” or ERWs. According to the state, ERWs warrant extra protection because of their “scenic beauty, aesthetics, scientific values, broad scope recreation potential and intangible social values.” Of 20,000 stream miles in the state, only 1,500 miles have this designation.
Within the last year, there has been a movement to change ERW regulations to make it easier to install dams on them.
“The state’s population is growing,” said Tim Snell, associate state director of water resources for The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. “To prepare for a prosperous future, Arkansas needs to strategically identify, fund and utilize its abundant water resources for communities, agriculture and industries in ways that maintain the character of its most important free-flowing streams. The Conservancy and its conservation partners are focused on finding solutions that meet water supply needs while maintaining the many values provided by ERW streams.
“If you are interested in helping keep Arkansas streams clean and clear, there are a lot of ways to help. One of the easiest ways is to participate in a clean-up, which are organized by organizations like the Arkansas Canoe Club, Boy Scout troops or city governments. Or you can join a non-profit organization like The Nature Conservancy that focuses on conservation in a cooperative way to find common-sense solutions for our conservation challenges.”
Learn more about the Conservancy's work on Ouachita Mountain rivers in Arkansas.September 21, 2011