Troubled river appears to be recovering

Fish populations returning to Salt Fork River (Phil Cross/KOKH).

Two years ago, it was a river of death. Fish and wildlife were dying from the waters of the Salt Fork River and no one seemed to know why. However, now the river is back from the brink.

“We've had about 10 fish kills since 2012,” Wildlife Department spokesman Micah Holmes said of the Salt Fork, “That is very unfortunate and knocked some of those fish populations back.”

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The fish kills began to get smaller, people along the river worried if there were any fish in the Salt Fork left to be killed. Two years after the last fish kill, which also may have been connected to the deaths of other non-aquatic wildlife, the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s most recent fish survey yielded surprising results.

“The Salt Fork fish population is in good shape right now,” Holmes said, “We did some routine surveys on it a few months ago and the fish population, sports fish and other fish, they found about 38 species.”

So what happened? Why did the fish die and why are they back?

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“In the last two years, I think we've had a little bit more water than we've had in the past,” said Ferrella March, an environmental programs manager with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

March heads up the DEQ’s monitoring efforts along the Salt Fork and is part of the Oklahoma Kill Response Team, a group of several state agencies including the DEQ, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. The team allows rapid response when fish kills are reported, in order to better identify what caused them.

“What is key is we're able to get out here as soon as we see some changes happening,” March said.

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In years past one of the challenges to investigating fish kills involved the moving water itself. If there was a problem with the water, be it dissolved oxygen levels or pollution, the actual problem water was far down stream by the time anyone was able to investigate.

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On the Salt Fork, the Kill Response Team set up active monitoring to give real time water conditions. One of the key things being watched was the salt content of the water through a conductivity test.

“I wouldn't say [conductivity] has behaved abnormally, but it is hard to see a trend as the water goes up, it goes down, as the water goes down, it goes up,” said Lance Phillips an environmental programs manager with the Water Resources Board.

Phillips agrees the new team has allowed for rapid response, but also continued monitoring. Each agency has its specialties when it comes to environmental issues. In the past, just one agency might be notified when fish kills happened and that agency may not have the ability to do long-term water testing or monitoring to determine a cause.

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“All water bodies are important to us, the whole program is to protect our waters and we try to monitor with what resources we have the best we can across the state,” Phillips said.

While no one cause for the past problems have been identified, the possibility of pollution is still being considered. However, the team says help from the community has helped identify changes to the river

The hope is the river will continue to repair itself which would provide a place for recreation for Oklahomans for generations to come.

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