The proposed 4/10 cent countywide sales tax to fund $282 million in river development has been promoted on the promise that enhancing the river will in turn lead to major enhancements to the economy of Tulsa and the surrounding area.
Enhancing the river, tax proponents guarantee, will attract business after business after business, thereby turning that tax investment into a return on the order of almost $3 billion.
While some commentators, river tax opponents and thinking citizens have questioned the assumptions and methodology behind those promises (for instance, see Michael Bates' op-ed piece "Show Your Work" in last week's paper at www.urbantulsa.com), some recent developments might cast doubt on whether the various projects along the Arkansas River will even wind up "enhancing" it after all.
"Getting water in the river" for aesthetic purposes is the goal of the publicly-funded projects, primarily the proposed low water dams, but Kevin Stubbs, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, pointed out the obvious fact that seems to have been ignored in all the hoopla: low water dams or not, we're still at the mercy of Mother Nature.
"Even with the dams in place, we have limited ability to modify the flow of the river. We can't create more water when there isn't any," he told UTW.
And when the river does flow at a level at which the dams enable control of its water level, he said it might not always be advantageous to do so.
Stubbs serves on an advisory committee on Arkansas River development to the Army Corps of Engineers. However, when media reports quoted Gaylon Pinc, an environmental consultant for Tulsa County and the Corps, saying, "Development will cause no harm to fish and wildlife..." Stubbs told UTW that he had to speak up.
"The analysis they did did not represent real world conditions," he said.
Stubbs explained that the Corps' study assumed the flow of the Arkansas River would remain at least at a level known to environmental gurus as "7Q2," which is a federally-defined standard for the lowest threshold of water flow for the dilution of contaminants.
The 7Q2 standard, he said, is 696 cubic feet per second, but the river often trickled at a flow of less than 50 or 35 CFS during last year's drought, and will inevitably do so again in the future.
He said the study was based on estimates of average flow of the river when it should have been based on a "worst case scenario" flow, like last year's conditions.
He said some pools of water to be created by the proposed dams are downstream of a sewage treatment plant, which means the pollution won't be cleaned out and diluted without sufficient water flow, which means the lake conditions intended by the Jenks dam will also greatly resemble the conditions of a stopped-up toilet.
"The Jenks dam is essentially being done for looks--it doesn't provide any benefit, and it will have an adverse effect for fish and wildlife and water quality," said Stubbs.
Except, "for looks" has been the point along for river development: "get water in the river" to make it pretty, and then businesses will set up there, river tax proponents say.
The dam can be lowered to release water back into the river to increase flow (which won't always work, depending on how much water there is), but, of course, that equates to lowering the water levels that are the goal of the project in the first place.
And that only speaks to the appearance of river.
"Virtually all the species of fish would be adversely affected," as well as the least terns that nest along the river's banks and sand bars, Stubbs said.
"It's impossible to truly mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife from river development," Stubbs said.
He said the proposed Sand Springs dam is a good idea in that it will serve as a storage vessel from which to release water to offset reductions in flow from Keystone Dam during times of reduced power production, but even that won't last long, and it won't provide all the promised benefits.
"Water levels at Sand Springs will go up and down like a yo-yo, so that lake wouldn't be very useful for recreation," he said, pointing out conceptual drawings of the proposed Sand Springs Lake depicting marinas and recreational activities to ensue.
He said all of these problems can potentially be offset, Mother Nature permitting, but it will be impossible to have both good water quality and the high water levels intended to beautify the river at all times, and that a monitoring system of some kind should be in place to maintain water quality.
However, Stubbs said there are still more questions that need to be answered before the right balance of water flow can be conceptualized, questions such as "What are the potential impacts of implementing this? What are you planning to do to mitigate the environmental impacts? What budget will there be for that? Is there a timeframe?"
And these questions aren't going to be answered before the Oct. 9 vote on the river tax, Stubbs said.
"The vote is really too premature for anyone to able to make an informed decision on this," he said.
Gaylon Pinc did not return telephone calls.
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