Water levels at Tulsa District lakes were the lowest in years as the result of an extreme drought. The drought had many negative impacts on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local communities, but USACE took advantage of the low water to perform routine necessary maintenance on facilities that are usually underwater.
The drought throughout the district reduced water levels at most lakes by several feet, exposing silt, debris, trash, even an ancient skull, and lake managers used the opportunity to get maintenance done more easily and less expensively.
“This window is being taken advantage of to enhance work that we do routinely, and it has given us a better angle to do a better job with those routine maintenance jobs,” said Eugene Goff, operations project manager, Kansas Area.
“We did a ton of cleanup at lakes in our area,” said Mark Ellison, operations project manager, Red River Area. “We spent many weeks cleaning the shore line of our lakes with volunteers helping to pick up old tires and other trash and debris.”
One of the more unusual items discovered was a bison skull found about a quarter mile below Denison Dam on the Red River. The age of the relic is unknown, but Ellison said it has been a long time since bison roamed that area. It is now on display in the Texoma Lake Office.
“We are responsible as stewards of public lands,” Goff said of the cleanup. “It makes it cleaner and safer from a personal safety standpoint, but also from an environmental perspective.”
Water is well below the end of boat ramps at Red River Area lakes, allowing dredging out to the extreme ends of the ramps to remove silt and debris, which improves accessibility.
A persistent issue at USACE lakes is erosion encroaching on public use areas, which are situated as closely as possible to the water. Over time the banks erode and close in on the recreational vehicle campsites.
“Low water levels let crews get the proper equipment into the area to do erosion control and stabilize the banks in the public use areas,” Ellison said. “During high water you get a lot of erosion. We had a chance to get in at Waurika Lake and stabilize those banks, and that means there will be less maintenance on those RV sites at Kiowa Park and Chisholm Trail Park because we provided that safe zone. We’ve got riprap and Gabion baskets (cages filled with riprap, sand or soil) in there. It’s one technique we use on those eroded banks.”
Courtesy docks usually floating in the water are sitting high and dry with grass growing around them, making it easy to replace flotation bumpers and decking.
“You can do it in the water, but it’s a lot more labor intensive,” Ellison said. “It saves us money and time when we can do it at the lower levels.”
While most of the work was regular maintenance, some work could not have been done at all unless the water was low.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) did a lot of work that they wouldn’t have been able to do,” Goff said. “They’ve done a lot of work on the marshes. It was done without high cost because they didn’t have to work in wet conditions. It will carry years and years down the road. There will be monumental benefits as we receive moisture.”
The USF&WS rehabilitated some dikes at John Redmond Reservoir and replaced outfall structures, which holds water in the marsh. Eroded areas in the marsh that allowed leaking were repaired to help the marsh function as intended and work at full capacity.
“Fish and Wildlife couldn’t control the water; now they’ve got better management of the marsh,” Goff said. “Sometimes they draw the water down to let vegetation grow, and other times they store water to get it into the vegetation for the wildlife.”
Other work at USACE lakes with low water levels included extending boat ramps, planting winter wheat for soil stabilization, placing fish structures and habitat, removing beaver dams and lodges, and re-working the sand on some swim beaches.
Recent rains have raised water levels at some lakes, even helping some move from drought stage to flood pool, and the window of opportunity for low-water work is closing. As bad as the drought has been, for USACE lakes it wasn’t all bad.
“We would not pray for it again,” Ellison said. “But we did take advantage of what the weather dealt us and we made the best of it.”