The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has been stocking trout-year round in the Lower Illinois River since 1965, but that may end permanently if something isn’t done to solve the water problems on the river.
“It’s hard to manage a trout fishery if you don’t have any water,” said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
State wildlife officials have already temporarily ceased stocking trout in the Lower Illinois River and there are no plans to resume in the near future.
Oklahoma is in danger of losing one of its two year-round trout fisheries. A town hall meeting has been scheduled Thursday night in Sallisaw by local elected officials to discuss the problem.
The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Indian Capital Technology Center. Fisheries personnel from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation are slated to make a short presentation of the issues and possible solutions.
The water woes on the Lower Illinois are convoluted. Without regular releases of water from Lake Tenkiller, the river gets low and oxygen levels drop to lethal levels.
In years past, the Lower Illinois River has received a small but steady stream of water from a leak in the Tenkiller Dam’s sluice gate, but that leak has been repaired, ending that lifeblood for the river.
The river gets water releases from Tenkiller Lake when the Southwestern Power Administration is generating hydroelectric power, but that fluctuates based on power demands.
Unlike on the Lower Mountain Fork River, the trout fishery in the Lower Illinois is not entitled to any of the water stored in Lake Tenkiller. It’s all allocated for hydropower or municipal and industrial water supply.
State wildlife officials are borrowing water that belongs to Sequoyah Fuels and used that to keep the stream and the trout fishery alive during the summer drought.
Now, the river is often very low with little flow and there was a fish kill due to low oxygen levels earlier this month. Without regular water releases from power generation, the river becomes nothing more than shallow pools separated by a few rocks.
“ODWC uses all of the water it has access to on a daily basis by requesting two hours of generation a day,” said Jim Burroughs, northeast fisheries chief for the agency. “That uses up our daily allotment of inflows. That release coupled with a release from (the Southwest Power Administration) at least every two or thee days keeps it from going dry. If (Southwest Power Administration) decides to not generate for many days, which it sometimes does, then the river has the potential to be nothing but a bunch of potholes.”
Six years ago, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation bought 320 acres of land around the Lower Illinois for a public hunting and fishing area called the Simp and Helen Watts Management Unit.
There is some archery deer hunting and small game hunting on the Lower Illinois Public Fishing and Hunting Area, but the main reason the wildlife department bought the land was for its access to the river and trout fishing.
The Wildlife Department hired engineers to develop plans to renovate that portion of the Lower Illinois River and make it much like Evening Hole on the Lower Mountain Fork, a swifter-moving trout stream with ideal trout habitat.
Those engineers drew up the plans but no habitat work was done and none is scheduled because of the water problems. Bolton said the department has turned down offers to buy additional land along the Lower Illinois River for the same reason.
“We have little interest in acquiring additional land until we can resolve water quality issues in the Lower Illinois River,” Bolton said.
Let’s hope all the money the Wildlife Department has already spent hasn’t been thrown down the river as well.