Spring rains curtail boating in hard-hit Mid-South states

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Lake levels high, access points flooded

Seemingly endless spring rains drenched a swath of the mid-South —Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri — raising lake levels, flooding some areas and creating potentially dangerous and sometimes impossible boating situations.

Fort Gibson, OklahomaAs if that wasn’t enough, the weekend of May 10-11 brought a new round of storms, killing more than 20 in Missouri, Oklahoma and Georgia. In Missouri, a tornado hit a rural area about eight miles north of Seneca and continued east.

Tornadoes killed 13 people in Arkansas on Feb. 5, and another seven were killed in an outbreak May 2. In between came freezing weather, persistent rain and river flooding.

“We just keep getting pounded in the same areas over and over again,” said Tammy Moody, a spokeswoman with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Little Rock District.

Extra precautions

“At some lakes, people are still boating; it’s just the water’s awfully high,” she said.

P.J. Spaul, a spokesman for the Engineers in Little Rock, told Soundings Trade Only prior to the latest tornadoes, “I don’t want to scare anyone off from coming.” There will be recreation available, he said, but visitors need to be aware of extra precautions. 

Lakes were at high levels in Arkansas in mid-May, and some were not expected to recede to a normal condition until September or October, Spaul said. Also, debris cluttered some lakes, making it more difficult for boaters to navigate.

“This is pretty serious,” Spaul said.

Tornado winds swept even more debris into the high waters.

“We do know there are a large number of parks still underwater,” Moody said. “The main problem is a lot of boat ramps are underwater, as well as parking lots, and all the things that lead up to them. All the recreational facilities are underwater, and when they come down we’re going to have to see what kinds of repairs will have to be made.”

The Upper White River basin, an area that covers Arkansas and parts of Missouri, has had nearly 23 inches of rain since March 1, Spaul said. That is between two and three times the norm for the area, and does not take into account heavy rainfall in February.

Tulsa, Okla., had 21 inches of rain between Jan. 1 and mid-May, said Marine Retailers Association of America president Phil Keeter, who lives in the area.

That is 8.5 inches more than usual.

25-year highs

In the 25 years Spaul has worked for the Little Rock district, he said he has never seen lakes as full as they have been this spring.

Boating on rivers will be impossible with the rapid water flow as a result of the tornadoes, Moody said. Small craft are supposed to stay off the rivers until the water is below 70,000 cubic feet per second. Before the mid-May round of tornadoes, the waters were still at 135,000 cubic feet per second.
The Army Engineers manage flood control levels on the lakes and decide when to release water if one lake gets too full.

It’s a delicate science. When one lake is released, the overflow lands in another downstream, eventually working its way into the Arkansas River. If the Arkansas River gets too full, that inhibits commercial barge traffic.

People depend on these lakes for an assortment of reasons, Spaul said.  

“Flood damage reduction is the reason these lakes were built in the first place and that’s been a tremendous help.”

During these downfalls, lots of farmland and businesses were hurt by flooding, but not nearly as much as if the lakes hadn’t existed to take on the swelling water levels, Spaul said.

The damage

Tenkiller Lake in Oklahoma still had high levels in mid-May, and few boat ramps were open, according to the Army Corp of Engineers’ Web site.

“Obviously, when the lakes are full, boat ramps become unusable, and people generally discourage boating because of floating trees and debris and other underwater hazards like bathrooms and picnic tables,” said Edward Engelke, spokesman for the Tulsa district of the Army Corps of Engineers.

At Burnt Cabin Marina on Tenkiller Lake in Park Hill, Okla., several ramps were damaged. The marina was inaccessible for about a month and a half, said owner Rick Parker. Even half the campground was closed. “Our business is recreation, and if people can’t get out on the water … ,” Parker said.

In his five seasons as owner of Burnt Cabin, this is the highest water level — 22 feet above normal — Parker has seen. 

In early May, before the tornadoes of May 10, the water at Tenkiller was still 10 feet above normal, and Parker was trying to open his store to check on inventory. 

At Tenkiller the boating season starts on or around May 1. The fishing and camping season started in early April.

Most of the lakes in Oklahoma were less than 25 percent above capacity before May 10, so they were returning to normal, said Engelke. But tornadoes over the weekend of May 10 dumped even more water into the lakes and river.

The lakes began to fill in early April and continued to rise until they stayed in a flooded state, Engelke said. The Engineers had not released the water because they didn’t want to flood the Arkansas River. About 80 percent of the water in Oklahoma and the southern portion of Kansas eventually end up in that river.

“When we’re releasing water from our lakes, all of our water goes down there to the rivers and makes the rivers impassable,” Engelke said.

At Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, where Keeter keeps his boat, two dam gates were opened in early May. But the Engineers don’t want to let too much water out because Lake Hudson would feel the effects of the extra water, Keeter said. If Hudson released some of the water, it would swell Gibson Lake. Eventually, it all ends up in the Arkansas River channel, he said.

“If that gets too high, barges can’t come up, and can’t get underneath lower bridges,” affecting commercial traffic, Keeter said.

Roger Endo, a captain on a 108-foot paddlewheel boat, Cherokee Queen, said an early spring typically sees bass finishing tournaments with about 200 entries. But that didn’t happen this year. All the parking lots and ramps were flooded. 

“I couldn’t even get to my dock because I would have to walk through water three or four feet deep,” Endo said. 

Underwater hazards

Lake levels in Arkansas will not return to normal anytime soon, said Spaul. Beaver Lake in northwestern Arkansas is not expected to get back to normal level, or “public conservation” level, until Oct. 1.

“That’s assuming we get back to a normal amount of rainfall,” Spaul said.

Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., is projected to return to normal around July 1. Shoals Lake, which straddles the Arkansas-Missouri state line, isn’t expected to open before Oct. 1. Norfork Lake should get back to normal Sept. 1 and Greers Ferry on Aug. 1, Spaul said.

Hugo Lake, Oklahoma
An ice storm last December is partly to blame for the debris, said Engelke. It left thousands in Tulsa without power and damaged a substantial number of trees. Many hanging or dead limbs were washed away when the floods came and others were blown away by high winds. Tulsa saw winds as high as 75 miles per hour in May, Keeter said.

The debris might make boating inconvenient initially, but the real risk comes a few weeks after it gets washed into the lakes, Spaul said. The branches and trees will soak up enough water and sink, but for a period they float beneath the surface, still too buoyant to sink completely.

To ensure safety, boaters should wear life jackets in case they hit a limb floating beneath the surface and get thrown from the boat, Spaul said.
Other obstacles also lurk beneath the water’s surface.

“The real hazards right now are on the shoreline, and it’s because the water is up in places that are normally dry ground,” Spaul said.
In some places, picnic tables, trees, signposts and bathroom facilities are completely submerged.

The Army Engineers are urging boaters to use a wide berth around the shoreline to avoid hitting something. They’re also asking swimmers not to dive or jump from ledges to avoid hitting those unseen obstacles. Finally, the Engineers are recommending that anglers not fish around docks and marinas until lakes return to normal levels because electrical systems could pose a danger.

“We’re just hoping things get back to normal right now,” Spaul said. “Once we do … we can make some releases to start pulling these lakes down.”
In some Oklahoma parks, even some ramps that were not submerged were damaged and could not be opened, Engelke said.

The trees were submerged so long. there were fears the trees were killed because the roots were wet for so long, Engelke said.
“If we did have a dead tree problem the parks would not be safe,” he said.

Flooded roads that were damaged will also have to be fixed, Engelke said.

The tourists will come

Meanwhile, the Little Rock District of the Engineers is working with marine dealers and marinas to minimize their problems, Spaul said.

The Army Engineers are allowing dealers ramp access on an as-needed basis, so they can take potential buyers for test drives during the onset of the busy season, Spaul said.

That will help, said Keeter, because sales are already down in many dealerships, and now service will be off because people are not using boats.

“It’s just another thing that marine dealers and marina operators have to work around,” said Keeter.

And as people begin using boats, they might require more service from hitting debris, Keeter said.

Other challenges include notifying people who made camping reservations and whose sites are still underwater, Spaul said. The Army Engineers are working hard to accommodate those people.  

There still might be a silver lining to the rainfall that will draw tourists to the hundreds of miles of natural, largely undeveloped shorelines on these lakes.

In Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, boaters will be able to get out on the lakes; they just have to take extra precautions.

“We don’t want to keep the visitors away,” Spaul said. “But we do want them to know there are some high-water conditions out there and some high-water hazards they need to be aware of.”

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