The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

August 18, 2013

Great Salt Plains Lake is waiting on funding

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Supporters of Great Salt Plains Lake appear to be at a standstill as officials wait for congressional approval and money for additional studies concerning dredging the lake and elevating the oxygen levels.

An initial study of the lake recommended followup through traditional evaluation and reevaluation. It stated obvious changes in the lake and some project purposes not being met. The study recommended an evaluation of how the lake functions and what can be done.

The study recommended is called a reconnaissance study, but is 100 percent funded by Congress. Kathy Carlson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager at Canton Lake, who also has jurisdiction over Great Salt Plains Lake, said there are no plans to dredge the lake, because it is not economically feasible.

Nate Herring, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District, said the desired study is in the hands of Congress, which has not acted.

“It’s 100 percent federally funded, but the funding must be authorized by Congress, and it has not yet been authorized. We don’t have the funding — it’s whenever Congress authorizes it,” Herring said.

After the reconnaissance study, a feasibility study would follow, he said.

The initial study recommended follow-through. That recommendation is put on a list of things to do nationwide, and that is where it currently sits, Herring said.

“There is a big backlog of things to do and not very much money. It’s sitting there waiting to be funded. We don’t know when that happens,” Herring said.

The primary function of the lake is for flood risk management. If there is flooding, then the priority would increase, he said. It also is considered a recreational-use lake, which has a low priority. Recreation is minimal, and there are no earmarks. Herring said some of the projects done in Oklahoma were done through earmarks, and those are not done anymore.

“That will change things,” he said.

Sedimentation is a problem with lakes as they get older, and it takes a lot of engineering and a lot of funding to address those issues, Herring said. He said he did not know the cost of dredging the lake, because it is a variable cost.

“You must look at what’s in the dredge material itself, or if it ran into a situation where there was some contaminant,” Herring said. The amount of land available to place the dredge material in also is important. He said there must be a dredge area so the material can dry, and that takes a lot of land. That is critical to the cost, and it could be very expensive.

Federal funding for these study phases currently is not available, said John Rossmond, of the Corps of Engineers. Rossmond quoted a report from the initial study of Great Salt Plains Lake.

The initial appraisal of the lake made a number of points, according to the executive summary of the 2010 report, released by Rossmond.

Among those are:

• Great Salt Plains Lake continues to serve its primary purpose of flood risk management, even though there has been significant sedimentation. There is a need to ensure that full flood protection potential is retained into the future.

• Great Salt Plains Lake once served as a popular destination for aquatic recreation. Over time, aquatic recreation has been severely impacted by problems related to sedimentation and turbidity — the state of not being clear or transparent because of sedimentation. There is a need to increase visitation by restoring the project’s ability to support traditional aquatic recreation or by capitalizing on various other types of visitation opportunities.

Great Salt Plains Lake provides recreational opportunities in a semi-arid region where similar destinations are uncommon. In the early days, the lake was deeper and provided a popular area for aquatic recreation. Visitation to the lake peaked in 1961 with 879,000 visitors.

There is a definite negative relationship between visitation to the lake and ongoing sedimentation, the report stated. The reservoir now has a mean depth of less than two feet, which significantly limited aquatic potential. Visitation fell to 129,338 in fiscal year 2007 and public use for aquatic recreation is nearly non-existent today.

• Great Salt Plains Lake once supported a productive sport fishery that was held in high regard by visiting anglers. The fishery has since been seriously impaired by problems related to sedimentation and turbidity. There is a need to restore the recreational sport fishery at Great Salt Plains Lake.

Management of sport fish populations in Great Salt Plains Lake is the responsibility of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. After the lake was impounded, several fish species became naturally established in the lake. Others were stocked into the lake by the ODWC to establish a sport fishery and prey base. The success of the sport fishery has diminished because of water quality issues that cause periodic fish kills. Sedimentation and turbidity also destroy productive habitats and reduce reproductive success, the report states.

While lake supporters wait, the fate of Great Salt Plains Lake seems to require money and congressional support, two things that don’t seem to exist in Washington this year.