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Conservationists, anglers ask Tulsa city councilors to review Zink Dam operations plan

The shovelnose sturgeon is among several fish species that live in the Arkansas River in Tulsa.
The shovelnose sturgeon is among several fish species that live in the Arkansas River in Tulsa.

Anglers and conservationists are pressing Tulsa city councilors to have more discussions on how the new Zink Dam will be operated.

Voters in 2016 approved the $48 million dam now under construction in midtown. Engineer Charles Pratt said a lot of promises were made to them but not all of them can be kept, and he’s betting that will be to the detriment of wildlife.

"The project has been billed primarily to the taxpayers, ‘We’re going to have a lake out there,’ and you can’t have a lake and let fish go by. That’s the only way fish can go by is to drain the lake," Pratt said.

Pratt said fish species in the Arkansas River aren’t the kinds that could use a simple fish ladder. They need something more like an elevator that would run millions of dollars.

Those species include the threatened shovelnose sturgeon, which has been around more than 100 million years.

"It’s just so amazing, even to a biologist like me, that you can go right there in the middle of Tulsa and have shovelnose sturgeon — a literal living dinosaur that most people across the United States have never even seen — and it’s right here in our backyard in this little river and it’s still making a home there when it can’t so many other places," said Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Fisheries Biologist Josh Johnston.

Johnston said for shovelnose spawning, ideally, there would be no dam. Another solution would be to have the dam gates completely down from February until late May or June for various fish species’ spawning seasons, but that would mean no lake during key recreational times.

River Parks Authority will operate the dam, but conservationists have described their manual so far as a plan to make a plan.

Brewery owner and angler Jake Miller said while no dam would be the ecological ideal, they aren’t trying to stop construction; they just want elected officials to know how the new Zink Dam could affect the fishery and those who enjoy it.

"We’re pretty considerate people and we’re not trying to ask the world of this, but just deciding that this aesthetic lake is so great that we don’t have to worry about any of the native species or gamefish in this river anymore is, I think, ridiculous," Miller said.

While conservationists are looking for further discussion of the dam’s impacts on the environment and wildlife and ways to mitigate them, legal action is a possible step.

Attorney and angler Bryon Helm said they could file a lawsuit because conditions of a federal construction permit aren’t being met if fish can’t pass the dam. The July 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma could provide another option.

"The [Muscogee] Nation can apply to administer the Clean Water Act for the section of river that is in what the Supreme Court has referred to as Indian Country. If they were to do so, they could set their own approved uses, their own water quality standards, and they could enforce those standards," Helm said.

The image in this story, Scaphirhynchus platorynchus, by Wikipedia user MONGO is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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