“Conservation needs more than lip service… More than professionals. It needs ordinary people with extraordinary desire.” — Dr. Rex Hancock
The story of conservation in the lower Cache River and surrounding Big Woods of eastern Arkansas is one of ecological setbacks, protection victories and painstaking restoration. Yet the final chapter has yet to be written.
In 1970, at the request of local landowners, the State of Arkansas slated 232 miles of the meandering lower Cache River and Bayou DeView for channelization to control flooding on upstream fields. But a group of concerned sportsmen and conservationists led by Dr. Rex Hancock joined conservation agencies and organizations to launch a campaign that eventually brought a halt to ditching of nearly all of the lower Cache. During the battle, seven miles of the river were channelized.
Soon afterwards, a partnership of agencies, conservation groups, businesses and landowners begin working together to conserve the remaining forests in the lower Cache basin. Major victories included securing federal funding that created the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and later working to add 41,000 acres of Potlatch Corporation lands to the White River NWR.
Through the Wetlands Reserve Program, tens of thousands of bottomland acres were reforested. All told, the partnership has reforested more than 50,000 acres and safeguarded more than 130,000 acres in the Big Woods.
While the conservation strides have been significant, the work on the channelized stretch of the lower Cache remains incomplete. Now we have an opportunity to begin restoring natural meanders of the channelized river, helping to fulfill the vision of those who originally worked to protect the river. When complete, this stretch of the Cache will once again enjoy thriving fish populations and flourishing habitat that supports waterfowl and hundreds of other resident and migratory bird species.
Why Restoration Matters
With channelization, the Cache basin’s productive aquatic habitats and richly diverse bottomland forests have declined. This harms millions of wintering waterfowl that flock to this area, black bears that roam freely in surrounding woods, and prized sport fish that define the Cache’s waters.
Returning the lower Cache to its natural meandering condition slows the river’s velocity and reduces the delivery of sediment that damages not only the Cache but also downstream rivers and habitats. Benefits of restoration include:
- Improved habitat for sight-feeding sport fish, mussels and other aquatic species;
- Improved growing conditions for bottomland forests and wetlands;
- Increased wetness in the floodplain during the summer months to improve waterfowl habitat; and
- Boosted tourism opportunities for Delta communities and revitalization of the land for hunters, anglers and birders.
More than that, restoring the Cache pays homage to and helps sustain the deeply rooted Delta river culture so cherished throughout Arkansas. We anticipate that this restoration project will also inspire people across Arkansas and serve as a model for river restoration nationwide.
Re-creating Natural Pathways
The Army Corps of Engineers, City of Clarendon, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Audubon, Ducks Unlimited, and The Nature Conservancy are worked together to restore a 4.0-mile portion of the channelized river upstream from Clarendon, Arkansas.
Restoring the river to its more natural state involved removing plugs at the start of old meanders and constructing weirs, rock structures that will redirect water to flow into the river’s historic meanders. Using these methods meant that a significant stretch of river was restored with fairly limited construction work.
Total cost for construction and short-term and long-term project management is $7.8 million. The Army Corps of Engineers received its funding for the federal share in 2012. To fund the lower Cache River restoration, local partners were responsible for contributing $2.8 million. The Nature Conservancy has worked with trustees and volunteers to raise the local partner match.
After the necessary funds were provided to the USACE, a Notice to Proceed with construction was provided on May 3, 2013. Work to remove the earthen plug at the most upstream meander began in earnest and was completed in June 2013.
The river’s hydrological, biological, and geomorphic response to construction of phase I is being monitored by The Nature Conservancy fand partners. This monitoring will help us plan for restoration of the remaining meanders in a proposed phase II.
After coming so close to losing the entire river, we now have an extraordinary opportunity to keep the Cache on course for future generations. With your support, we can continue to restore the Delta, making it a thriving haven for nature and people.