A Tale of Two Forks
Every river has a story. Its bends and curves shift with each season, revealing the water’s rushing and waning flow. A river’s banks can tell tales of drought and flood, show tracks of wildlife and be the grounds of many family memories.
Arkansas’ Little Red River has a particularly interesting story. With the construction of Greers Ferry Lake during the 1960’s in north-central Arkansas, three of the four forks of the Little Red River north of the lake were isolated from each other. This eliminated a large portion of prime habitat for endangered species like the yellow cheek darter fish and the speckled pocketbook mussel. It also eliminated much of the potential for genetic flow between these four rivers for species already at risk. These forks of the river also gave way to ample recreation opportunities such as fishing, swimming, and boating.
Then came the record-setting flood of 1982, where lives of the people of Clinton were drastically changed and Arkansas was declared a disaster area. Nine feet of water flooded the entire downtown of Clinton, where the Archey Fork and South Fork of the Little Red River meet. To address future flooding concerns, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan to channelize and dredge this 3.5-mile stretch of the river at Clinton heading downstream.
Although at the time channelization seemed like the only affordable option, the river has since become an 800-foot-wide eyesore in some places. When the channel was widened, the banks eroded, the prime habitat was eliminated and it became too shallow for swimming, boating and fishing.
Restoring the Banks of the ‘Clinton Ditch’
However, this river’s story comes full circle. In 2012, The Nature Conservancy has been working with the City of Clinton and other partners to develop its newest project in the Upper Little Red River watershed to restore this same 3.5-miles stretch of the river. Conservancy staff have developed a “design-and-build” project that will bring it back to near its original width and depth.
“We’re going to build two main types of structures, some of rock and some of wood,” said Joy DeClerk, river restoration program director for The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. “The rock structures will guide the water toward the center of the channel, away from the banks. The wood structures will be buried at angles into the banks to provide instant fish habitat and protection of the bank while we’re replanting vegetation.”
Currently, the river is threatened by sediment from eroding banks, poorly maintained gravel roads, and large-scale clearing of forested areas within the watershed for development and other uses. Demands for large water withdrawals during low flow periods of the year put an additional strain on sensitive species. This restoration project will improve aquatic habitat and water quality, serve as a model project for reducing sediment and improve the quality of this great natural resource for the people of Clinton.
This project on the Archey Fork and South Fork is supported by a broad range of partners including municipal leaders from the City of Clinton, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many others. One specific partner, Don Richardson, floodplain administer for the City of Clinton, is especially excited to see this project move forward.
“I’ve been involved in this project for the past 30 years,” said Richardson, who was mayor of Clinton just after the 1982 flood. “The very first ordinance I had to pass while in office was Clinton’s floodplain ordinance, which gives the city flood insurance coverage from FEMA. Since then, I’ve been personally vested in trying to restore the banks of the channel.”
During the past five years, Arkansas Conservancy staff have produced a strong record of success implementing stream and river restoration projects. Using the science of Natural Channel Design (NCD) emphasizes understanding the natural channel processes to create a stable stream from an impacted one. With this method, Arkansas staff have seen success on projects in Benson Creek, a tributary to the Bayou DeView in eastern Arkansas, the Middle Fork Saline River in the Ouachita Mountains, and the Middle and South Forks of the Little Red River in the Ozark Mountains.
Restoration at Scale
This project in Clinton is part of the Conservancy’s Statewide Rivers Program, which launched in 2003 in an effort to bring together state, federal and private partners to address declining water quality in the Arkansas streams.
Throughout the Ozarks, the Conservancy has worked with landowners to stabilize stream banks, finance alternative watering methods to keep cattle out of streams and inventory more than a thousand miles of unpaved roads, which contribute to excess sediment in streams.
“I think one of the most fascinating aspects of this project is the scale of it,” said DeClerk. “So often our impact within the watershed is so cumulative and the restoration we do is in smaller chunks. This project will be a great demonstration of how to successfully complete restoration at scale; we’re working with a lot of great partners and accomplishing multiple objectives.”
Richardson sees another success story.
“I believe in a little bit of time, this project will transform the river, turning it back into a natural channel and allowing us to canoe and paddle right here in downtown Clinton once again,” he said. “This could be an economic engine for the city and bring in tourists. Whether you like to canoe or kayak or just walk the trail nearby, this will be a wonderful place for our citizens.”