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Community Insights: Keeping the Kiamichi River Clean

The Kiamichi River, in southeastern Oklahoma, is a pristine 177-mile river with headwaters in the Kiamichi Mountains, on the Oklahoma border with Arkansas. But it won’t stay clean if the state has its way: lawmakers want to divert the flow of the Kiamichi to meet the water needs of the Oklahoma City area, and possibly sell water to Texas. Another threat comes from a Texas developer who wants to build a 1200-megawatt hydropower facility on the Kiamichi River. 

The Kiamichi River Legacy Alliance, however, is up for the fight. The Alliance, made up of community members who live on or near the river, was formed in 2016, when news of these plans came to light. Since then, they have been waging a long legal battle, on several fronts, to protect their river. 

To create a baseline understanding of the good health of the Kiamichi, the Alliance partnered with Thriving Earth Exchange to understand the river’s hydrological regime in order to identify and address water quality and quantity concerns. They are also working with Community Science Fellow Laura Bartock, who is helping the Alliance find the resources they need to identify the potential impacts of these projects. 

We sat down with Alliance members Bill Redman and Laura Bartock to learn more about how they plan to protect the river they love.


How would you describe the Kiamichi River area to someone who has never been there?

The Kiamichi River has a rock-and-gravel-based riverbed, and it flows pretty well in the spring and winter, but slows to a trickle in the summer, creating the large pools of water that are the perfect habitat for mussels, catfish and other aquatic life. Large trees lean out over the river, creating shade, and you can tell it’s been that way for generations. And in the summer time it has a distinctive smell—clean, fresh water. 


What do you see as the unique strengths of this community?

We’re all very passionate and devoted to passing on to the future what we’ve been given. The land and the river is essentially unchanged from our great-grandparents’ day. We’re not necessarily against economic development or sharing water, but there’s ways to do it that won’t destroy what we’ve got. We think we’ve got the law on our side, too. We are standing up and fighting, not letting somebody come in and destroy what has been passed down to us.

The Alliance has a strong connection to its community, and its members are very dedicated, collecting samples and signing petitions. The people in the community are really passionate, and the Alliance does a great job keeping them informed and answering the questions they have. In addition, the Alliance’s knowledgeable members and AGU partnership will hopefully help us develop the tools and knowledge to enable us to win our battles. 


What do you see as its unique or surprising challenges?

Oklahoma City has a strong need for water, and has already used up several other sources as it goes further and further east for more. The Kiamichi River is a big prize, and non-locals have dollar signs in their eyes fantasizing about obtaining all that water. But by diverting water, building pipelines, and flowing it down the river, they are going to mess up the whole aquatic system. Southeastern Oklahoma is very different from the rest of the state, both in its geology and in the fact that there has never been any hydrocarbon production in the watershed to speak of. The rivers in the region are still pristine.

The Alliance’s whole mission is to see that the river remains the way it is. Other Oklahoma rivers have been polluted from oil and gas production, and aren’t anything like they used to be. Ours, in a more secluded part of the state, are still in pretty good shape. There’s other ways the state can get water from the river, but they are more costly, and they just want it the cheapest way they can get it.

In addition to the river itself, there are at least three federally-listed endangered freshwater mussel species in the Kiamichi. These plans will disrupt the life cycles of those endangered species and ultimately cause their extinction. The river also has an under-investigated interaction with the Antlers Sands aquifer. That’s why working with a hydrologist is important. If they cut the water off before it gets to Antlers Sands, that aquifer could be diminished, with deleterious effects all across southern Oklahoma.


What changes do you think your project will bring now, and 20 years down the line?

We would hope the river would be just like it is now, 20 years down the road. We can get there, but we’re a tough phase, with legal briefs and lots of river research. Twenty years from now, it’d also be great to see a continued, robust citizen science effort monitoring water quality and quantity, with the community still engaged in its ecosystem helping manage and maintain its natural ecosystem.

mgoodwin editor

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