DEMOPOLIS, Ala. --- Raymon Harris knows what has been lost. He’s been watching it disappear for nearly 40 years.
“Some of these younger fishermen have no idea,” said the Alabama anglers and former conservation director of the Alabama B.A.S.S. Nation.
“They see a hump, with just a trickle flowing through it, and don’t realize that there’s a big slough on the other side of it. We need to educate our bass fishermen about the fact that the public paid for the right of way to these flooded waters but now we’ve lost so many of them. It’s pitiful.”
Hobson Bryan also is well acquainted with how siltation over the years has closed recreational access and diminished backwater fisheries habitat in channelized river systems maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For 20 years, the professor at the University of Alabama and long-time B.A.S.S. member has teamed with Harris to sound the alarm about the thousands of acres being sealed off or dried up in the 12,000 miles of inland waters managed by the Corps through 207 lock chambers at 171 lock sites.
Thus far, they have little to show for their efforts. The Corps continues to focus almost exclusively on dredging main channels to facilitate commercial navigation. Meanwhile, flooded backwater areas bought with taxpayer money reverts to dry land that is reclaimed by the property owners who sold it.
“To add injury to insult, many of the water projects were justified in part by the recreational values they would generate,” Bryan said.
“The Corps has simply placed highest priority on dredging for main-channel navigation purposes, largely to the exclusion of angling and other outdoor recreation interests,” he continued. “The result is that increasing recreational fishing demand is now meeting dwindling supply opportunities.
“The transportation industry, power and other commercial interests are active, of course, in advancing their agendas. We need to get the recreational component represented.”
That might be possible, too, with the potent revelations that Thomas Wells amassed while writing a dissertation for Bryan entitled, “Policy Implications of Aging and Manipulated River systems--- Case Study: Black Warrior River.” Arguably, his work is among the first to document just how severe losses are for recreation and fisheries because of siltation in our Corps-managed rivers.
“Thomas did a thorough job of researching the issues and documenting the extent of backwater losses on the stretch of the Black Warrior River between Tuscaloosa and Demopolis,” Bryan said. “But this is indeed a problem for many, if not most, river systems in the United States.”
On a 79-mile stretch of the Black Warrior that problem is quantified by the fact that open and marginally open entrances decreased from 251 to 119 from 1965 to 2006. Open and marginally open off-channel areas decreased by 1,225 acres--- or 26 percent. Additionally, 643 acres simply dried up, while the average and median size of off-channel areas declined 30 and 53 percent respectively.
“In fishing terms, I have fewer fishing holes to pick from and the ones that do remain are overall smaller than in the past,” said Wells, who used aerial photography, GPS technology and on-site inspections to compile his evidence.
Dams were built in 1955 and 1962 on this portion of the river, he explained, adding that siltation had closed just three off-channel entrances by 1965. Acceleration of loss since then, he said, highlights the severity of the problem.
Harris, meanwhile, watched the quality of the bass fishery decline concurrent with the loss of valuable backwater spawning and nursery habitat in the years after the dams were built.
“You used to catch 5- to 8-pound bass consistently,” he said. “Now, I can’t tell you the last time that I saw an 8-pound fish. Most of the backwaters that produced those fish, you can’t get into anymore.”
The Alabama fisherman said that numbers have declined as well, and he pointed out that just two 5-pound bass were caught in a recent tournament with 100 boats.
“When the dams were first put up, we had great fishing for years,” he remembered. “But as the creeks filled up, the fish couldn’t get back in there to spawn, and the fishery has gone down from there.”
Why has the Corps allowed this to happen? The answer to that lies more in Washington, D.C., than at Demopolis or other management offices on the rivers.
“No one foresaw the need to dredge for recreation,” an assistant site manager told B.A.S.S. Times. He added that districts have dredging policies for small boat access, but rarely have the money to clean out those areas. That’s because such work is not a line item in the budget, while main-channel navigation and hydropower are.
“We have a list always ready to go in case we do get funding,” he added.
Fisheries chief Stan Cook said that the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has worked with the Corps to identify areas “and to urge them to clean silt from inlets on a regular basis.
“During the early 2000s, some of the work was accomplished,” he said. “However, since then very little has been done to my knowledge.
“In years past, the Corps maintained the position that they need inlet dredge funding approved as a line time in their budget and those budget requests have not been approved.”
From the Corps Public Affairs Office in Washington, D.C., Doug Garman described the agency’s dredging policy and emphasized the value of its coastal and inland commercial navigation system:
“All USACE projects have congressionally authorized purposes (may include navigation, recreation, water supply, flood risk management, environment, hydropower), and USACE operates and maintains those projects within the funding provided to perform within authorized purposes.
“USACE navigation program is responsible for providing safe, reliable, highly cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable waterborne transportation systems for the movement of commercial goods and for national security needs. USACE navigation program is vital to the nation's economic prosperity and is responsible for moving over 2.3 billion tons of cargo valued at over $1.6 trillion.”
But the recreation component of these river systems is just as important, Wells and Bryan insist, and the Corps’ reluctance to maintain backwater areas threatens economic prosperity fueled by outdoor recreation.
According to Wells’ research, 372 million visits were made to Corps impoundments during 2006, with $8.1 billion spent within a 30-mile radius of those systems.
“With a multiplier effect, visitor trip spending accounted for an additional $7.8 billion and $3.9 billion in value added (wages and salaries, payroll benefits, etc.) Additionally, 104,811 jobs in local communities were supported by USACE lakes.”
Additionally, Bryan believes that the Corps is legally obligated to maintain access to side channels and backwaters. “An Alabama Law School professor is currently examining the legal issues surrounding lateral connectivity issues,” he said, adding that state water laws are important considerations as well.
“We believe that it is paramount to push for partnerships among state fish and game departments, recreational angling interests, and federal agencies to address backwater access issues.
“The Corps of Engineers has responded to barge and other transportation interests for main-channel dredging, but recreational anglers and others who use--- and have paid for--- the backwaters have been left out of the equation.”
How It Happens
What causes side channels and creek mouths to fill with sediment in river systems that have been channelized and fitted with locks and dams?
“One of the worst cases I have personally seen is the Tombigee River above Dempolis, Ala., all the way to its connection to the Tennessee River system,” said Hobson Bryan.
“I fished a B.A.S.S. tournament there a number of years ago and found that I could get in very few of the backwaters that had been open to anglers just 10 years earlier. Of course, large yachts throwing up huge wakes on this system are the major culprits in this case.
“But it is noteworthy that the Tombigbee Waterway was justified in significant part for the creation of recreational surface acreage, acreage now largely inaccessible to the general public.”
Thomas Wells, who examined a stretch of the Black Warrior River, added that “several variables” contribute to the problem. Besides wave action from barges and large pleasure craft, some filling in occurs naturally, he said.
“The dredging process (of main channels) could be accelerating the loss too,” Wells explained. Additionally, the Corps might be depositing some of that dredge material directly into side openings already filling with silt, although Wells emphasized that uplands are used most often.
He also said that private landowners are cutting down trees to reduce access to backwaters. “I saw some of that in my research.”
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)