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Lingering drought effects in Oklahoma slow river flows

People planning recreational activities on Oklahoma rivers this Fourth of July week may be surprised to find familiar rivers aren't flowing nearly as fast as they have come to expect.
by Randy Ellis Modified: July 1, 2012 at 7:31 pm •  Published: July 2, 2012
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People planning recreational activities on Oklahoma rivers this Fourth of July week may be surprised to find familiar rivers aren't flowing nearly as fast as they have come to expect.

“The Illinois River is the lowest for this time of year that I've seen in my almost 30 years of being here,” Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said of one of Northeastern Oklahoma's most popular float trip destinations.

“It's almost one foot below where it should be ... These are flows that we typically would see at the end of August.”

Jason Lewis, data chief and hydrologist for the Oklahoma U.S. Geological Survey, said his office has already received some reports of streams going dry in the Panhandle and other northern and western portions of the state.

It's common for some streams to go dry in the Panhandle during the summer, but if they stay dry for a long time this year, it will be hard on ranchers because the streams were dry for so long last year, he said.

The state had a fair amount of rain this past spring, but it hasn't had much rain lately and still hasn't recovered hydrologically from last year's devastating drought, Lewis, said.

The U.S. Geological Survey measures and maps stream flows throughout the state. Those maps show that dozens of rivers throughout the state are flowing at rates slower than they would be for nine of out 10 years this time of year.

Plan differently for trip on Illinois River

The Illinois River typically flows at a rate of about 216,000 gallons a minute past the Tahlequah bridge gauge this time of year, Fite said. As of Thursday, it was only flowing at a rate of about 60,000 gallons a minute, he said.

Low flow rates don't mean residents should cancel planned recreational trips, Fite said.

They should just plan a little differently.

It takes a lot longer to float the same distance, so people who have taken daylong 10- or 12-mile float trips in the past should strongly consider taking five- or six-mile trips, he said.

Individuals who follow that advice will have fun, he said. Those who reject it may find themselves exhausted, sunburned and having to pull to the side of the river halfway through their trip to call for help.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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