Lake Cook: Plans to drain Lake Conway have heated up the neighbors

On any given day, you can find Cole and Jay Harken out on the water. They live right on Lake Conway, and their time is usually spent fishing in the company of great herons, cypress trees, and water tupelos. It’s not just for recreation that their livelihood depends on it.

The Harkens create fishing content Youtube, where they share their enthusiasm for fish and wildlife with an audience of over 250,000. Popular videos promise LAKE MONSTERS, ANCIENT BEASTS and MYSTERIOUS CREATURES. They travel across the state, but about 80% of their videos are shot at home on Lake Conway.

In our travels we’ve learned that it doesn’t get any better than where we were, Cole Harken said.

As of Sept. 1, though, the Harkens’ home ground is going down the drain. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission approved the plans June 15 for major renovations which will require the complete drainage of Lake Conway for about five years.

The project has been in the works for nearly two decades and, with an estimated price tag of up to $15 million, will be the largest undertaking in the Commission’s 108-year history. The plan has three goals: to replace and modernize infrastructure, improve aquatic habitat, and improve access.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials displayed this poster at a recent meeting to show how much sediment has built up over time.

The AGFC is not only doubling down on outdoor recreation on Lake Conway and Faulkner County, but also on the conservation ethos that existed here in the 1940s, that we know is alive and well in 2023, and so that the future Arkansas residents can enjoy Lake Conway to its full potential, Director of Game and Fish Austin Booth said in a press release.

Although the goal of the renovations is to make the lake healthier, the news has been met with considerable uproar from fishermen and lakeside residents. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission hosted a public forum Monday night and about 120 Conwegians showed up.

One resident, Chad Blazer, just moved to Conway from Arizona last year. He chose Lake Conway for the sole purpose of being able to fish in his own backyard. With this dream temporarily thwarted, will he stay? Blazer suspects he can’t sell the house with a swamp out back.

Another participant, Jerry Sterling, 71, said he has been fishing the lake since he was about 9 years old. Sterling knows that the project must be completed, but he feels sad. He doesn’t expect him to go fishing in the lake again in his lifetime, and mourns for his nephew, who has just taken up fishing.

When Sterling first started fishing with his father, they couldn’t see more than 50 yards which was all trees. Lake Conway has changed a lot since then. In the 75 years since the lakes were created, the combined forces of wind, waves and residential development have caused a major buildup of sediment. About a meter of slime now occupies the lake bed, and the Game and Fish Commission estimates that a third of the original water volume has been lost. This makes boating in the upper two arms of the lake dangerous and means less breeding habitat for the fish.

The idea behind draining the lake is that once the water runs out, the sunscorched bottom will dry up, the sediments will compact, and the lost decades of depth will be restored. The new vegetation will grow and provide future habitat for fish and the foundation for a healthy food chain.

Once the lake is drained, improvements can be made more easily, Game and Fish officials said.

The temporary water drainage will allow for the construction of a new dam and spillway, a necessary upgrade considering the original dam is nearing the end of its useful life. Much more is planned for the lake, including strengthening the shoreline, updating boat lanes, and adding artificial habitats and gravel spawning beds.

Booth explained this plan Monday night and took questions from the crowd. Reactions ranged from resignation to indignation. Declining property values ​​took first place. Some worry about what will become of wildlife. Booth assured the public that in the long run the value of the property should increase and most of the fish and wildlife will simply follow the water as it flows into Palarm Creek.

When asked about alligators, Booth cited The mayor of Conway, Bart Castleberry: They will swim up the Arkansas River and visit their relatives in Louisiana. This drew laughter from an otherwise tense crowd.

Speaking of mysterious creatures, no one has hinted at what might happen to the Lake Conway Monsterbut we of the Arkansas Times I think this could be a good opportunity to prove or deny its existence once and for all.

Many of those present at Monday’s meeting said they were concerned about the timing. Though it’s up to Mother Nature, Booth said they don’t expect to fill the lake until 2028.

In an interview before the Monday meeting, Ben Batten, Deputy Director of Game and Fish he said he understands why people are upset, but he considers this project a necessary investment for the future.

At some point, something new has to be done. We’d rather do it proactively than wait for the dam to break and the lake to dry up on its own, Batten said. The nice thing about having done it before is that I already know it ends well. And the lake will be more sustainable for decades to come.

Batten refers to the extensive renovations of Lake Poinsett where the Commission carried out emergency infrastructure repairs, shoreline reinforcements, and both man-made and natural habitat additions. The AGFC has also been successful at White Oak Lakewhere similar management has created a thriving fishing business.

An additional public meeting is scheduled for 6:00 pm on June 29 at the Mayflower City Hall, and the Commission will vote on July 20 to lift the collection limits. The final months before the Lake Conways drawdown will be a free-for-all angler.

The Game and Fish Commission has the experience to back them up, but in the court of public opinion whether or not they’re worth it remains to be seen. And as for Cole and Jay Harken, at least for now, they’ll have to move on to other waters.

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