Tulsa can recover the Arkansas River

By David Arnett    
Monday, 25 June 2007
The Arkansas River can be beautiful and vibrant in Tulsa County.  We can build a living river with public areas, wildlife protection, and private commercial development year-round.  We can recover from the damage the Federal government has done to our environment.  We can rebuild the Arkansas River as Tulsa County’s lifestyle Main Street – and we can complete it within three years from this posting.

In 2006, the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG) commissioned a study of the 42 miles of Arkansas River located in Tulsa County.  Phases I and II of the study are now complete, and the resulting Master Plan has been accepted and approved by the INCOG Board of Directors, the Tulsa Metropolitan Planning Commission (TMAPC), the Tulsa City Council and the Tulsa County Commission.

Gaylon Pinc managed both phases for INCOG, and now, as the Environmental Program Manager for the Program Management Group, LLC (PMg), is managing Phase III, which he defines as, “the first phase of implementing the Master Plan in partnership with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the same partners used by INCOG for Phases I and II.”

“Tulsa County, through its Vision 2025 funding for river projects, is the current sponsor with the Corps of a technical planning process.  Using a combination of federal funds through the Corps and local funds, we will now begin collecting real field data needed to prepare the 404 Dredge and Fill Permit – a permit required to build anything in any waterway in the country.

“We are partnering with the Corps so we can have a better opportunity to get that permit more expediently, in order to build those river projects in Phase III that were identified as the top priorities in the Master Plan,” Pinc said.

The Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan should not be confused with the “Channels” a private proposal (click here for more) or other private developments that have gathered media attention.  The Master Plan is the official study developed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, other environmental agencies, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), specialized consultants, and via a long series of public meetings with public suggestions incorporated into the planning process.  Private citizens volunteered and served on the Arkansas River Corridor Advisory and Steering Committees in what has been the most open planning process in Tulsa history.

Generations of Tulsans have grown disrespectful, but still want the Arkansas River to become something special.  Historically, it served – as most rivers did in the early 1900s – as a way to move waste from municipalities and industry.  As environmental awareness grew over the generations, the Arkansas River benefited.

Pinc said, “When I first went to work for INCOG over 30 years ago, it was to look at water pollution problems and fix them.  The Arkansas River has evolved, not because of my efforts, but because of the resources that have been devoted to cleaning up all the bad pollution sources and fixing flooding and so forth that has resulted in a cleaner river, a river that has fewer hazards associated with it.

“Because of the trail system, people got close to the river.  Now we can also assure people it is not polluted like it used to be.  It is safe for boating.  It is still probably not safe for swimming and we don’t advocate that because swimming has many hazards associated with it, especially in natural waters where people are not resistant to the natural bugs that are in the waters – all natural waters – plus the Arkansas River is a hydro-river and the change in flow rates can be very dangerous,” Pinc said.

The building of the Keystone Dam in the 1960s reduced flooding in Tulsa County, but it changed the nature of the Arkansas River.  This Federal dam generates hydroelectric power for the Southwest Power Administration, an agency of the Department of Energy.  That power is generally sold to rural cooperatives and municipal customers – it is posted to the power grid, so to speak.

“The dam releases water to produce energy, but as a result, the flow is totally eschewed from what it would be in the natural condition.  Today’s scheme is that they usually start releasing water in the afternoon peak energy periods with 12,000 cubic feet per second coming out of those two turbines – and that basically covers the riverbed.  Tulsa sees that water around 10 or 11 p.m., and it lasts for about four hours.  We have water in the Arkansas River every day, but few are awake to take notice in the dark early morning,” Pinc said.

The Arkansas River Corridor Master Plan addresses multiple flow and environmental problems.

Pinc said, “The plan for the river really addresses most the building of low-water dams to diversify the aquatic habitat, to build pools that fish can actually live in, to improve the habitat between those pools so that there’s not just a dry sandy riverbed, and actually to build storage upstream to meter out the hydropower flows that currently occur and smooth those flows for a more uniform flow throughout the day.”

Pinc said he would emphasize “throughout the day” so that “we will be able to use them during the day.  So the fish will have more flow to migrate up constantly.  Recreators will have more flow in the river to kayak or canoe or float the river.  You could actually have a float concession,” he said.  “The whole system tries to address other pitfalls such as sand management and to literally bring the Arkansas River back to life.”

On June 21, private donors led by the George Kaiser Family Foundation announced a $100 million gift to enhance 25 miles of the 42-mile corridor according to the Master Plan – if voters approve additional public funding for the project.  Officials are preparing to bring a $277 million question to voters this fall.  To put it another way: for every $2.77 of public money, private money will match $1 – a far greater return than the $7-to-$1 match requested by The Channels project.  This proposal is a more moderate plan of fundamental Arkansas River environmental protection and infrastructure construction.

Pinc says the completion of construction is possible within three years.

Unknown at this time is if or when the Federal government will fund any part of construction or habitat restoration along the Arkansas River.  In Oklahoma City, the Corps brought $18 million for the Oklahoma River Project.  Pinc said they might have done more, but Oklahoma City did not engage the Corps until it was too late to get matching credit.  The Corps has an organizational mandate for restoration, especially when previous action caused disruption or damage to the environment.

“In Oklahoma City, the Corps built a drainage ditch and they wiped out the environment when they did that – they took a natural river that was undersized for flood control and excavated it and made it look like a drainage channel,” Pinc said.  “We have a few of those around Tulsa – Joe Creek, Fred Creek – and though they work efficiently for flood control, they are very poor environmentally and they look ugly.  So then Oklahoma City built low-water dams to put water in the river/drainage ditch, but they did it mostly under the MAPS program and thus they did not capture the federal match that they could have and should have captured,” Pinc said.

“Tulsa should gather participation from the Corps for the same activity – to improve the environment, to restore the environment because of a previous action.  They put in trees, trails, landscaping, bank stabilization, habitat improvements and so forth, in the Oklahoma River,” he said.

When that level of federal support will be forthcoming is an open question, but the Arkansas River is a much more significant national environmental asset than that funded in Oklahoma City.  Further, political winds blow heavily through restoration projects as some elected officials claim everyone else’s projects are “pork.”  Nationwide, there are $50 billion in river development projects begging for federal funding.

However, this Arkansas River effort is not developmental – private dollars are anticipated for development in areas set aside for that growth.  This is a restoration project of necessary river infrastructure for private development to occur – building a main street necessary for development to flourish on both sides.

From all reports, it certainly can be possible to return 25 miles of the Arkansas River Corridor within Tulsa County to life and beauty – and it can be done with local public and private donations and be completed within three years.  There may also be other projects after this one, but this is THE truly significant river project in Tulsa County history.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 05 July 2007 )