When I parked on a hot, July day below the spillway at the Great Salt Plains Lake in northwest Oklahoma, I saw a motionless fisherman standing on the bank. He was holding his strung-up rod in one hand and scratching his head with the other.
In front of him along the rocky shore lay hundreds of white dead carp and drum, the stench overwhelming. When he turned and walked back to the parking lot, he hung his head as he passed me. “What a shame,” he said to no one in particular.
Another drought, another fish kill. This is not the first time there has been a fish kill at the Great Salt Plains Lake in Alfalfa County, which was the first water impoundment in Oklahoma, built in 1941 for flood control, water conservation, and recreation.
John Stahl, fisheries supervisor for the northwest Oklahoma region, is all-too used to this scenario. He has worked for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation since 1979 and has seen fish kills numerous times at the Great Salt Plains Lake near Jay and Cherokee.
“The tailrace is a lot like a Pepsi bottle laid on its side,” Stahl said. “When the water level (table) goes down, whatever water is left pools up and the fish die.”
Fish only use approximately one-tenth of one percent of the available dissolved oxygen in the water. Bacteria use up the majority while breaking down organic matter.
The Great Salt Plains Lake has an average depth of only two feet, due to more than 70 years of silting and agricultural runoff. The shallower water warms faster which also depletes the oxygen.
The exceptionally hot summer of 2011 was so bad that all of the fish in the tailwater downstream nearly 100 miles to Ponca City died, Stahl said.
“The water (right below the lake) was so decomposed that it turned black,” Stahl said. “Even the turtles couldn't take it, so they climbed the banks and just died right there in the parking lot.”
Small gar were the only fish to survive last year, he said.
When the spring rains arrived, fish again migrated upstream to the dam and downstream into the lake from the two main tributaries, the Salt Fork of the Arkansas and Sand Creek.
The fish have spawned and fingerlings have been discovered both in the lake and below, but with the carp kill-off, it would appear those fish are next.
There are three ways to fix the problem, Stahl said. First the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could open the dam and let the water flow downstream, essentially turning it into a river again. This would depend on the two tributaries continually feeding it, not a guarantee.
Second they could dig out the silt in the reservoir. At 160 acres, Stahl figures it would cost anywhere from $5 to $10 million. He likened this option's feasibility to a feat rivaled only by raising the pyramids at Giza. Finally, the dam could just be plugged, raising the reservoir level.
According to a 2010 report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fishery will continue to silt in.
“As far as restoring the lake, there's really no feasible solution,” said Cathy Carlson, Canton Lake Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Eventually the lake will turn into a wetlands if no actions are taken.”
Carlson said a nonfederal partner must step in by law to help pay for a restoration, something she doesn't foresee.
“The lake is performing completely as designed for flood control,” she said. “Lakes silt in. This lake is silting in faster than most.”
Despite listing alternative solutions, the report states that the fishery will most likely cease to be. The fish kill will affect more than just the anglers.
Thousands of visitors flock to the wetlands each year to watch birds, including the endangered interior least tern, which makes its nest there.
“The birds need the fish,” Stahl said. “When the fish go, so will the birds.”