Clinton doesn't look like the kind of place that needs environmental remediation. A town of 2,600 nestled in the Ozark foothills at the spot where two forks of the upper Little Red River join together and feed into Greers Ferry Lake, its woods and streams appear pristine to the eyes of most travelers on U.S. Highway 65. Yet because of past modifications to the landscape, the waterways of Clinton are more troubled than they look.
In 1982, a massive flood hit the area, sending nine feet of water through downtown. The response was understandable: Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the town channelized a portion of the Little Red that flows through Clinton, the Archey Fork, carving out a deep floodplain some 3.2 miles long and 100 feet wide to contain any future floodwaters. What happened next is testimony to the difficulty of imposing manmade constraints on the natural world, said Scott Simon of the Arkansas field office of The Nature Conservancy.
"The river started flopping around in that channel and eroding land. You know, Mother Nature doesn't like a straight line," Simon said. Because a river tends to wend back and forth across the land, forcing it into a channel will only encourage the water to eat into its surrounding banks. The 100-foot channel began to grow and grow, as the river attempted to regain the natural shape of its flow. Three decades later, the floodway is eight times as broad as it was originally.
"The corridor is now 800 feet wide. It's threatening landowners, it's threatening the airport, and it's sending silt down into Greers Ferry Lake. And, there's a bunch of rare fish and mussels that occurred there — there used to be some great fishing habitat — but there's no habitat for hardly any fish in that 3.2-mile stretch."
Now, all of that is changing because of a river restoration partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the city of Clinton, the Arkansas Canoe Club and several other public and private organizations.
With the help of two grants from Southwestern Energy totaling over $1.8 million, the partners are building a new channel for the Archey Fork within the existing floodway. The project employs engineering techniques known as "natural channel design" to strategically nudge the river back into a natural pattern of bends and curves. Workers use local materials — rocks and boulders to create riffles, native vegetation to recolonize the eroded riverbanks, and erosion control structures called toewood, built of trees already downed by a storm. (For more details and pictures, visit restoringtheupperlittlered.com.) It's not an easy process, nor cheap, but Simon said there's a local consensus that it's needed.
"It's the town of Clinton that wanted this, that contacted the local partners and got everybody together. They've been great," he said. "The goals are to stop the loss of land from erosion ... improve the river habitat so that rare fish and sport fish will return, and create some recreational opportunities right there in the city of Clinton — canoeing, fishing, swimming holes." Preserving the safety of the town is a priority, too, of course. "We had the design reviewed by an engineering company, and they certified that this design will not cause any rise in the floodwater."
Phase 1 of the project was completed about a year ago; Phase 2 is ongoing right now. "We like to do river restoration projects in phases," Simon explained. "We want to see how the river responds to the restoration work so that we can understand if there are any adjustments that need to be made to the next phase of the project." So far, so good. Already, wildlife monitors from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the University of Central Arkansas are seeing increased numbers of smallmouth bass — and the reappearance of the yellow-cheeked darter, a rare fish that's been absent from this stretch of river for 30 years.
"You build it and they will come, and you can actually measure it," Simon said. "It's just pretty neat."
The Archey Fork is only one of the Conservancy's many projects in Arkansas. In the Big Woods of the Delta, a seven-mile stretch of the lower Cache River was channelized in the 1970s to control flooding of farmland; the Conservancy is now halfway through a project to return the lower Cache, which is a vital wintering spot for mallards, to its old meandering route. The organization is also preserving a stretch of the Kings River near Eureka Springs that had become badly eroded from nearby mining operations and deforestation. And, in several woodland areas — north of Atkins, on Mount Magazine, around Pinnacle Mountain — the Conservancy is using controlled burns to restore the health of forests that have grown too dense. Clearing the underbrush reduces the chance of a truly catastrophic fire in the future and boosts the population of species such as bobwhite quail.
"Most of us don't realize how much Arkansas has changed, and how different a healthy river or healthy woods compares to something that's not in really good shape," Simon explained. "A healthy river will have very, very few feet of visibly eroding banks. Most of it will be all vegetated. ... In some rivers in the Ozarks, you'll see those real messy, muddy, earthen banks without any vegetation on it — that's not natural."
Other environmental organizations focus on policy and advocacy work. In contrast, the role of The Nature Conservancy is much like that of a social worker: One case at a time, it's attempting to remedy the damage dealt by years of abuse and neglect.
"These are projects that benefit nature but also benefit people," Simon said. "Since it's such practical, on-the-ground work, you can see the results. You can walk around on the results, and you can measure it."
In Arkansas, the Nature Conservancy is seeking donors for the next phase of its Cache River restoration project. Donate online at nature.com (search for "Arkansas" to navigate to the specific page for our state) or by phone at 663-6699. Checks can also be sent to the headquarters of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas at 601 N. University Ave. in Little Rock.
The organization also welcomes volunteers to assist with its restoration projects in Arkansas. For individuals interested in helping the Conservancy preserve land in critical conservation areas, the Conservation Buyer Program sells properties to individuals who agree to the terms of a protective conservation easement.