The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has resumed trout stockings at the Lower Illinois River due to water levels improving in Tenkiller Lake, and officials with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation say they continue to seek a lasting solution to water shortage issues at the river.
The stockings resume after a temporary discontinuation had been in effect because of water shortages that caused two significant fish kills at the Lower Illinois this year. Recent rainfalls have improved water levels, but officials say the biggest water shortage concerns at the fishery have not been resolved.
At its November meeting, held Nov. 7 in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission heard a presentation from Fisheries Chief Barry Bolton that addressed why water shortages pose an ongoing problem to the fishery at the Lower Illinois River. At the top of the list of concerns is a need for reallocation of water from Tenkiller Reservoir for the fishery, since currently all of the water storage in the lake is allocated to other users. The fishery had for years been fed by leakage in the dam that provided as much as 75 cubic feet of water per second. The leak has been repaired, leaving the Wildlife Department with access to only two hours of water or less per day for managing 7.75 miles of trout fishery. Any other water comes from sporadic releases from water storage holders.
"There are anglers who count on the river for good fishing, and there are businesses in the region that count on anglers going to the Lower Illinois River to fish," Bolton said. "Water shortages combined with insufficient flow reduces oxygen levels to a point where trout and native species cannot survive, which means anglers don't have fish to catch. And that means fewer customers for local businesses."
Though water levels at the river are up now, Bolton said the fishery will likely face similar shortages again if water is not reallocated to support the fishery. Until then, he said possible short-term resolutions include more frequent releases of oxygenated water through hydropower generation, and taking steps to ensure water releases meet state water quality standards. Agreements also could be pursued that would create a temporary seasonal pool plan that provides minimum releases to maintain the fishery. Additionally, the Wildlife Department can temporarily "borrow" some water allocated to Sequoyah Fuels, who holds small percentage of storage in the lake, but that water will not always be available for fishery use.
Though there are short-term fixes, Bolton said it is a long-term solution that is needed most, such as congressional legislation to reallocate water storage for the fishery at no cost to the state. A similar problem at the Lower Mountain Fork River trout fishery below Broken Bow Lake was resolved through federal action that resulted in the allocation of water to the fishery.
Established in 1965 as mitigation for the construction of Tenkiller Dam, the Illinois River trout fishery has become a recreational and economic staple for the region. While finding a solution to water shortages in the river poses unique challenges, Bolton said the Wildlife Department is committed to the survival of the fishery and will continue to work tirelessly to ensure quality fishing for those who depend on the fishery for recreation and business.