Tribe’s water quality efforts having positive impact on lakes and streams

Tribe’s water quality efforts having positive impact on lakes and streams
CONTRIBUTED BY Lone Beasley, Media Relations.

SULPHUR, Okla. – Lake of the Arbuckles in southeastern Oklahoma is well known as a great local fishing spot and for its ability to provide ample supplies of life-sustaining water to cities of Ardmore, Davis and Wynnewood.

In recent years, however, several groups have grown concerned about the lake’s water quality. They have started work to ensure the lake remains ecologically sound for this and future generations.

“Arbuckle Lake is a fantastic trophy, largemouth bass lake, but during the summer we see areas now within the lake that have impaired levels of dissolved oxygen in them, Chickasaw Nation Natural Resources director Kris Patton said.

“If water quality parameters within Arbuckle Lake continue to decline, we are going to see more algal blooms (rapid growth of microscopic, unicellular algae) which will certainly impact water quality.”

Research has demonstrated the culprit to be excess nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizers and possible runoff from septic tanks. Mr. Patton said if algal blooms were allowed to grow unfettered, more than just fish will be in jeopardy. So, too, may be the sustainability of the water supply for more 60,000 residents in the region.

Working with local landowners, the Chickasaw Nation is taking action to protect the resource. Using a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Chickasaw Nation’s Natural Resource Office brought together an independent board – the Lake of the Arbuckles Watershed Association (LAWA). The board is made up of local landowners with a direct stake in lake.

“The Natural Resource Office was developed to assist the Chickasaw Nation with implementation of its historic water settlement with the state of Oklahoma,” Mr. Patton said. “The Chickasaw Nation formed that settlement with the Choctaw Nation, the State of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City in 2016, and work continues to finalize the settlement so that it may be fully enforced. The settlement and the planning processes our office manage allows us to take a seat at the table and impact how our region’s water resources are managed.”

A Chickasaw-Choctaw water planning team operates jointly to evaluate area water resources throughout both tribal territories, which encompasses 22 counties within the State of Oklahoma. The team identifies strategies for the best protection and sustainable use.

The Lake of the Arbuckles is not the only area of concern and the Natural Resource Office’s work. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality compiles water samples data, which are then evaluated to determine which lakes or streams should be considered “impaired waters.” Impaired waters are color-coded red on a composite map, with red markings indicating areas of heightened concern.

“As you look at the streams and surface water bodies across the state, you see a brightly colored red map,” Mr. Patton said. “When you narrow that down, the Chickasaw Nation and the Choctaw Nation have a lot of red streams, which includes Arbuckle Lake within the color-coded red impacts.”

Previous water quality sampling efforts are evaluated. The team has deduced that water bodies and streams within the Chickasaw Nation are becoming more and more impaired.

“We wondered what we could do to assist with turning the situation around,” Mr. Patton said. “So, we hit on the idea of the watershed organization process. The first step was the Lake of the Arbuckles Watershed Association, which is based out of Sulphur and is a landowner driven organization. Members must own land within the watershed to serve on that board. They are directing what best management practices should occur within the Arbuckle Lake watershed.”

Another emphasis in the LAWA effort is using prescribed fire to reduce wildfire potential. If a wildfire does break out, areas managed with recurring prescribed fires ensure it doesn’t have as much highly volatile fuel to keep it going.

From a landowner’s perspective, prescribed fires help promote a healthier ecosystem and better grazing for cattle and horses. Prescribed fire also allows better forage for deer, turkey and other game.

Promoting stands of native grass and vegetation, especially along riparian waterways, reduces the potential for erosion resulting in significant loss of top soil within creeks, lakes and streams.

Wes Harden is a Chickasaw citizen who owns 1,000 acres five miles west of Mill Creek, Okla. The property has been in his family the better part of a century. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in conjunction with the Chickasaw Nation, helped burn 300 of his acres.

Mr. Harden said it was much easier than doing it himself and reduced his stress level over concern a fire he set might get out of hand.

“It’s a lot more than just lighting a match,” he said. “As a landowner, you are responsible when you light that match. You’re responsible for if it gets out of hand. The BIA and the Chickasaws made it tremendously easier because they have the equipment that we don’t have.

“This was the first time we’ve had the BIA and Chickasaws come in and it sure took a lot of stress off knowing it was under control. They’re pros. Plus, they came in with their crew of about 15 whereas in the past we’ve tried to do it with three or four. What usually takes us two or three days, they had done in about six hours.”

Mr. Harden said the reason for wanting to burn the land was to reduce the number of red cedar trees from ruining the property’s land use.

“If you don’t control the red cedar, before long they just take over a place,” he said. “We run 180 to 200 head of cattle on our land. We also use it for recreation, hunting deer and turkeys on it. The little sprouts that come back after the burn benefit the deer and the turkeys.”

He said a controlled burn also reduced the amount of chemicals he used.

“It cuts down on using chemicals,” he said. “You have to use some chemicals, but it helps not having to use spray that ends up washing into the lake.”

LAWA president Larry Kennan owns acreage through which Sandy Creek flows one-and-a-half miles north of where it pours into Lake of the Arbuckles. He says removing eastern red cedar trees is critical to maintaining the ecological integrity of the lake.

“If you look underneath an eastern red cedar tree, there is no vegetation. It’s bare ground,” Mr. Keenan said. “And if you see one, you see a hundred. It’s a very invasive species. Not only do they consume huge amounts of water, they eliminate that natural filtration system of native prairie grass that acts to filter impurities before they get to the creek and it flows into the lake.”

He said prescribed fires hearkened back to the original inhabitants of the land and by nature itself.

“Back before statehood, prescribed fires were common, conducted by Native Americans as well as lightning that would run across the rangeland and take out a lot of trees, in particular, eastern red cedar,” he said.

The result was excellent forage for cattle, buffalo and other native wildlife. Mr. Keenan said as the state grew in population, fire had been largely removed from the landscape due to urbanization and residents not understanding and appreciating its value.

“There are some challenges out there,” Mr. Keenan says, referring to opposition LAWA members have run into as fires start burning.

“Prescribed fires are absolutely natural,” he said. “It’s been going on for years and we’re just trying to reincorporate them back into management and back into the environment. Our strategy is to use prescribed fire and some mechanical removal to control, remove, reduce the presence of eastern red cedar in the watershed and that will eventually have a positive impact on the water quality in the watershed.”