by Julia Bourque, Nature Conservancy

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 1960s 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 prime habitat for endangered species like the yellowcheek 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.

Then came the record-setting floods of 1982, when many lives were lost and parts of Arkansas were 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 relieve the flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to channelize and dredge a 3.5-mile stretch of the river at Clinton.

Although at the time it seemed like a necessary action, this channel that was home to endangered species, lush bankside vegetation and plenty of recreation soon became a 700-foot-wide eyesore. 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 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approached The Nature Conservancy to develop a restoration plan that would improve habitat for the river’s vulnerable species while assuring flood protection for the city. With input from partner agencies and city stakeholders, the design came together and in September 2012, the Conservancy broke ground to restore this same 3.5-mile stretch of the river, bringing it back to near its original width and depth.

“We’re going to build two 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 primarily coming from eroding banks, poorly maintained gravel roads and the 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 for reducing sediment and improve the quality of this great natural resource for the people of Clinton.

Collaborative Conservation
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, Southwestern Energy Company and many others. One partner, Don Richardson, floodplain administrator 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, the Conservancy has had many successes implementing stream and river restoration projects in Arkansas. Using the science of Natural Channel Design, project managers have an understanding of natural channel processes and have created stable streams from rapidly eroding ones. With this method, the staff has seen success on Benson Slash Creek in the Delta, the Middle Fork of the Saline River in the Ouachitas and the Middle Fork and South Fork of the Little Red River.

Restoration at a Larger 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 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 cumulative and the restoration we do is in smaller chunks. This project will be a great demonstration of how to successfully complete restoration at a larger 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.”