KW Morrow, White River

July 19th, 2004

Minimum Flow Initiative for the White River System
By KW Morrow (silvermallard)

In case you haven't heard, the way the world famous White River of Arkansas and Missouri and the five large lakes that comprise the White River Chain of Lakes are managed is currently being re-thought by policymakers at the federal and state level. The controversy centers on what is called the "Minimum Flow Initiative." If you fish the White River, Beaver Lake, Table Rock Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, or Greer's Ferry Lake; if you reside along the shores of the same; or if you operate a business along the same shores; then you would be well served to educate yourself on this proposition and develop an opinion as to whether you are for or against it. Many stakeholders have already weighed in on the matter, and there has been a running debate among the river system's anglers for the past couple of years. Currently, the public comment period is open with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Concerned parties should contact the Little Rock District Office.

According to the Water Resources Development Act of 1999 and 2000, Congress has authorized the US Army Corps of Engineers to:

  • Allocate a small portion of the water in each of the following White River Chain of Lakes reservoirs for the purpose of establishing minimum flows: Beaver Lake, Table Rock Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, and Greer's Ferry Lake.

  • Determine if said minimum flows were technically feasible, environmentally acceptable, and economically justified.

  • Report their findings back to Congress before making any modifications to the water resource plans in order to accommodate minimum flow.

    Minimum flow is the planned release of small amounts of water when no water is being released from the dams for the purposes of hydropower generation or flood control. Under the plan, minimum flows would be released about six months out of the year. The timing of minimum flow releases would vary from dam to dam depending on what was determined to best impact the watershed as a whole.

    What is to be gained from minimum flows?

  • Increased forage production of the river system would provide for more food for trout and other game fish.

  • Lower Summer time water temperatures and improved Dissolved Oxygen content for the river system.

  • Improved navigation over shoals.

  • There is no clear answer to the opposing question: what would be lost to minimum flows? But arguments have ranged from wading the tailwaters becoming more hazardous to increased boat traffic and the possibility of a resultant negative environmental impact on the fishery due to increased pressure. It seems to me that wading access will most likely be gained in some areas and lost in others, which may balance itself out or break in favor of either more or less access. The formal environmental impact study due out later this year should tell us more based on GIS modeling which should accompany the report. With improved navigability, undoubtedly there will be stretches of the river now favored by wade fishermen that will see more boat traffic, but just how this would harm the fishery overall has not been convincingly established by the opposition.

    Water allocations to support minimum flows range from 1.5 surface feet to 5.0 surface feet from each of the five lakes. This amounts to between three and four percent of the total allocated water storage of each lake. Measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), the increase ranges from 81 to 590 cfs below each dam. Add this to the leakage rate of each dam and the resultant flow rates increase to 136 cfs to 800 cfs. Even at 800 cfs, the tailwaters would all still be highly wadable. See the before and after minimum flow pictures below for the White River just below Bull Shoals Dam, which is both the most contested site and the one with the highest flow rate of 800 cfs.

    No flow on left, 800 cfs on right

    Many area anglers wade below these dams on one full generator, which has a discharge rate of 3,000 cfs. When Bull Shoals Dam (pictured above) is generating at full power, the discharge rate surges to 24,000 cfs.

    While the proposal has detractors among anglers, the principal naysayer is the Southwest Power Administration, who could potentially be forced to bear some of the costs associated with the project. However, according to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, there is no research that predicts any increase in the costs of electrical production that would be passed on to the consumers. Various cost-sharing initiatives and mitigation proposals are being researched and sought out which could even negate if not offset the costs of re-tooling some of the dams.

    There seems to be far more diversity of opinion among the stakeholders on the Arkansas side of the border (anglers in particular) than on the Missouri side. Both the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Missouri Department of Conservation are in favor of the plan. And public opinion on the Missouri side is relatively homogenous in support of the initiative. One could summarize the Arkansas sentiment as being somewhat divided along wade-anglers versus lodge operators, guide services, and boat rental proprietors; or even as bait/float fishermen versus fly fishermen. However, many Arkansas fly anglers support the plan. One of the most outspoken critics continues to be Fox Statler, a well-known fly tier, angler, and outdoor writer from Arkansas. Statler basically contends that wading will become more difficult and environmental benefits will not likely be realized to the extent they are predicted to by the protagonists. He has written widely on the subject over the past year, and continues to campaign against minimum flow at public meetings and on Internet bulletin boards.

    I'm unaware of a Missouri counterpart to Mr. Statler. Up here, everyone from the most disenfranchised fly angler to the outfitters, guides, and boat rental shops all look forward to the day when minimum flow is enacted. Missouri's most outspoken protagonist is probably Phil Lilley, owner of Lilley's Landing, a trout resort on the shores of Lake Taneycomo in Branson.

    Waders fishing below Table Rock dam Everything I have read and heard suggests that what we would experience would generally be an increase of from 10" to 18" of water depth in the tailwater sections of the White River and a few hundred more cubic feet per second of flow rate. Here on Lake Taneycomo, that possibility is almost universally welcomed by float and wade anglers alike. Especially during the Fall and Spring of the year on Lake Taneycomo's Trophy Management Zone (the tailwater below Table Rock Dam seen here), we often experience periods of no flow that measure into weeks. During such times there is no current in the shallow, two-mile long tailwater fishery. This can make fly fishing in particular somewhat more difficult. It is my opinion that some of the very best fly-fishing is to be had when the dam is generating one generator. Minimum flow would roughly duplicate that water condition. As for the additional 10" to 18" of water, it is still too little to provide much greater boat access to the upper lake. However, it would dramatically increase the amount of submerged gravel beds where the vital food sources for trout breed and live. Logic dictates that more habitat equals more food, and more food equals bigger fish... or more fish...or both.

    But, for me, one of the most attractive elements of the whole proposition is that minimum flow would restore the entire river system to a more natural state - as a river. Rivers flow. What we currently have is a chain of lakes that sometimes flow like raging rivers and other times are still and silent. Perhaps it is mere sentimentality or some romantic notion on my part, but that's the way I feel about it. I think the entire argument is summarized in that one statement. We dammed the rivers and created the lakes. Now we have wonderful lakes. But we have lost much of what was once one of the greatest rivers in the United States. Minimum flow would go a long way toward restoring as much of that river as is recoverable to "river status." While it will not restore the glory days of the eighteen-day float fishing trips or the hundreds of miles of prime Smallmouth Bass habitat, it will guarantee us that the river will flow again. It will also undoubtedly improve the aquaculture for the trout that have replaced those bass we lost to the construction of the dams. If you will allow me the pun, I encourage all stakeholders to "go with the flow." ~ Ken

    About Ken:

    Ken graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1988, and spent the next several years serving in the United States Navy as an intelligence analyst and Russian Language translator. He is a veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Leaving the nation's service in 1993.

    Ken is also a published outdoor writer and historian, having penned articles and stories that have appeared in several national hunting publications like North American Hunter magazine, on, in regional and local newspapers, and historical and literary journals. He also provides hunting and dog training seminars for Bass Pro Shops and other sporting goods retailers nationwide and works with other outdoors businesses and conservation organizations in the fields of public relations, promotional marketing, fund-raising, and advertising. He also is a partner in Silver Mallard Properties, LLC. He currently resides with his wife, Wilma, their Weimaraner, Smoky Joe, and their Labrador Retriever, Jake, in Branson, Missouri, where he founded the Branson/Tri-Lakes Chapter of Ducks Unlimited in 1998.

  • Previous Ozark Angler Columns

    If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

    [ HOME ]

    [ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ] © Notice