Arkansas has always been considered a water-rich state, and for good reasons. Rainfall in Arkansas ranges from a little over 45 inches per year in Benton County to over 54 inches in extreme Southeast Arkansas. Even in years of extreme drought we get something between 25 and 30 inches, which is more than many states in the West get in a good year. Even so, rainfall can be fickle at times. Almost every year there is a dry spell that starts late June to mid-July and extends into the fall. Some years, the dry spell starts as early as mid-Spring. Many, and perhaps most, of our roughly 90,000 miles of creeks, streams and rivers cease to flow during the annual dry season. Fortunately, lakes and reservoirs exist that help us make it through.
Arkansas has more than 2,400 named lakes and reservoirs larger than 5 acres in total and covering over 600,000 acres. These lakes range from small, privately owned farm ponds and reservoirs up to the gigantic Bull Shoals Reservoir that at times covers more than 71,000 acres. These lakes and reservoirs help us get through our dry seasons by storing water from the abundant rain in quantities that will survive the drought. Uses of our lakes include fishing, irrigation, recreation, wildlife habitat, fire protection, water supply, power production, flood control, and even more.
Many people will tell you that Arkansas does not have natural lakes. But that is not true. In fact, Arkansas has at least two types of natural lakes. The first and most dominant is the oxbow. People who live along the Arkansas, Lower White, Mississippi, Red and Lower Ouachita Rivers are very familiar with oxbows. Oxbow lakes are formed by natural erosion processes. As a river flows around its meanders, alternating bends to the right and left, the flow of water tends to erode along the bank on the outside of the curve and deposit material along the inside of the curve. If you are looking downstream and the stream is curving to the right, the outside of the curve is on your left and the inside on your right. The river slowly moves around its floodplain as the erosion progresses. Sometimes, the erosion from an upstream meander will catch up with a downstream meander and the river will shortcut across the new connection. The result is that the bend between the points of contact is cut off from the stream and it forms a lake. The shape of these lakes is a kind of big omega (as in the letter from the Greek alphabet). When oxen were the primary source of power for plows, they were connected to the plow by a yoke. The collar that went around the ox’s neck was shaped the same way and was referred to as an “ox bow.” Hence, these lakes are referred to as oxbows. Did you know that Lake Chico in Chico County is the biggest oxbow lake in the world? Well, it is!
The other natural lake, one that is not normally recognized as a lake at all, is the plunge pool. When water flows over a waterfall, it erodes a pool at the base of the fall. These pools are referred to as plunge pools. Plunge pool lakes can be quite large, but most in Arkansas are small. Frequently, they are referred to as “skinny-dipping holes” because they are usually secluded, clear and very cool places. Skinny-dippers likely are not aware of the number of snakes that like these cool places, too.
By far the most common lake in Arkansas is the reservoir. Reservoirs are artificial lakes. Reservoirs can be created by putting a dam across a valley where a stream flows, or by building a levee or digging out a hole that can be filled with water pumped from a nearby stream. The latter type sometimes are referred to as tanks. Reservoirs have one function, to store water. The stored water and the habitat it creates can be used for all of the purposes listed above but the function of the reservoir is to store water. In fact, the term reservoir is French for “storehouse.” It is this storage function that helps us get through our long dry Julys and Augusts.
Governor Beebe declared July to be “Lakes Appreciation Month” in Arkansas. The declaration is part of a larger effort by the North American Lake Management Society to have July declared as Lakes Appreciation Month in every state of the United States. So, just why is it that I appreciate lakes and reservoirs?
First of all, they provide us with a steady supply of drinking water. Those of us in Northwest Arkansas who are more than 60 years old can remember the big drought of the mid-1950s. It never really got bad enough that we were in danger of not having drinking water. But we were restricted as to how much water we could use. I can remember driving down to Lake Atalanta in Rogers with Mom and Dad and looking at how dry it was getting. We would stand on the road that normally was right next to the west shoreline and throw rocks to see if we could reach the water. Fortunately back then we only took baths on Saturday evening so we got through the summer. (Seriously. I’m not kidding!) Today, Beaver Lake, a giant reservoir created by damming the White River, provides us with more water than we use. At least we are good for the next few decades.
Of course, the value of lakes to our economy has to be appreciated as well. Up here in Northwest Arkansas, we have several industries that use water at a rate of hundreds of thousands of gallons per day. Our groundwater resource in this part of the state just will not provide that quantity. Back in the days when our water came from springs and stream withdrawal, it was not possible to get a steady supply in the quantity needed during drought years. And those years occur about two or three times per decade. In other parts of Arkansas, the economy is based upon row crop agriculture. With the declining water table in the Mississippi Alluvial Aquifer and other aquifers, more and more of these farms are relying on farm reservoirs to provide the needed irrigation water. Those reservoirs may also become great sources of recreation for the residents of the region. Then, there is the electrical power produced in some of our reservoirs.
The economic value of water is an intellectual and professional interest for me. However deep down in my heart, I have to say that my greatest appreciation is for the simple beauty that is provided by lakes and the wildlife habitat provided by them. In most of Arkansas, lakes are not the natural environment. But once built, the lakes evolve fairly quickly. In a few years, an aquatic community complete with bacteria, biofilm, algae, plankton, insects and bugs, and fish develops. If the water level is fairly constant, a vegetative community will develop as well. Then around those lakes where the water level doesn’t fluctuate constantly, riparian vegetation develops providing cover for all sorts of terrestrial reptile, mammals and birds. Days just don’t get any better than those spent simply poking around a lake in a canoe on a cool still morning looking at the birds and wildflowers.
And then speaking of lakes and boats, I come to one of my favorite pastimes, messing around with boats. Any kind of boat will do, but kayaks, canoes, rowboats and sailboats are my favorites. I know that some people also like powerboats, but I find them to be less interesting and generally aesthetically less pleasing. But to each his/her own. With Arkansas’ 2,400 lakes, there is plenty of room for us all. Plus, I can spend a good part of the rest of my life exploring new (to me) lakes.
There has been controversy in Arkansas, sometimes heated, over whether or not streams should be dammed to form lakes. The epic battles over the Buffalo River and Lee Creek come to mind. Well intentioned people sat on both sides of those arguments. Kelly and Donna Mulhollan of the folk music group Still on the Hill recently produced a CD titled “Once a River” that addresses that controversy. The subject of the CD is the history of Beaver Lake. There are songs about the watershed before the lake existed as well as afterward. One of the songs is based on a discussion as to whether or not Beaver Lake should have ever been built. The conclusion was “what’s done is done and it’s time to move on.” Yes, we did lose a beautiful valley and river along with all of the ecological services that was provided by that valley, but the resource we gained is also priceless. Our parents and grandparents made the decision to dam White River using the best knowledge they had at the time. I don’t know that I would ever support the building of another large dam in the Ozarks. What I do know is that the resource we have needs to be protected and appreciated. Please go out to a lake and say “thank you.”