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Engineers try to address ecological concerns about the new Zink Dam

 City Councilor Phil Lakin looks at progress on Zink Dam during an August council tour.
City Councilor Phil Lakin looks at progress on Zink Dam during an August council tour.

Engineers involved in the new Zink Dam assured Tulsa city councilors they are developing an operations plan to address concerns it will harm fish populations.

Ecologists and anglers urged the council last month to get involved in the process, saying they weren’t seeing anything other than a plan for a recreational lake. They worry that means the dam will have its gates up throughout spawning season, impeding the movement of fish and their eggs and ultimately decreasing populations.

City Engineer Paul Zachary told councilors last week if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing enough water from Keystone Dam upstream, Zink Dam’s gates could stay down for an extended period without the lake completely draining, but there is a study underway to determine the best way to operate it.

"We need to optimize how much time can we keep water in the river, how much time can we have it down, and that’s just a series of algorithms that we’re going to have to run through," Zachary said.

Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Fisheries Biologist Josh Johnston said if the gates are down enough during spawning season, the threatened shovelnose sturgeon’s local population could increase.

"However, if you let them by there and then go, ‘Eh. Low flows, we’re going to shut this for two weeks,’ they’re gone. They’re never coming back. They’re gone in the Red River above Texoma, they’re gone above here where they were in Kansas just in 1975, they’re gone. And they’re gone from here if we let that happen," Johnston said.

Johnston has previously said the ideal scenario for fish is for Zink Dam's gates to be down all of March, April and May.

Zachary said the $48 million dam has more than 400 feet of gates that can be completely raised and lowered in order to allow fish better movement.

"We need to be celebrating the fact that we’re getting rid of a 40-year, 7 foot high dam that has served as a barrier," Zachary said.

The operations study should be completed next year. Zink Dam will be finished in 2023.

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.