CN in contact with GRDA on Illinois River white water park

BY D. SEAN ROWLEY
Senior Reporter
02/13/2019 12:15 PM
WATTS – There are still some hurdles to jump, but the Illinois River may soon have a white water park near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, and interests have been in touch with the Cherokee Nation to discuss the project’s environmental impacts on water quality.

The public Grand River Dam Authority and the private Walton Family Foundation want to develop the park adjacent to the river on the former Lake Frances site at an expected cost of $15 million. The park would be near an old spillway north of Watts, and would include construction of a white water course north of the main channel.

“Our department has talked with GRDA,” CN Natural Resources Secretary Sara Hill said. “They still have to submit plans for construction and how they will protect water quality and the environment. But the area has needed investment for a while. The Lake Frances dam broke many years ago, so it has been in need of updating.”

The CN has no financial stake in the park, and oversight would be the GRDA Division of Scenic River’s responsibility. The authority’s vice president of Scenic Rivers and Water Quality is CN citizen Ed Fite, who assumed directorship of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission in 1983 and continued his duties when the OSRC folded into the GRDA in 2016. He has also been an Oklahoma Water Resources Board member since 2005.

“My staff has toured the site, and we are keeping in touch with GRDA,” Hill said. “The GRDA will operate the park, and Ed Fite is all over it. If Ed Fite is on the case, I have a lot of confidence they will be protecting the river.”

Once completed, the park is expected to span 25-30 acres with trails, parking and a beach area. The white water course will be about 1,000 feet long and 50 feet wide.

What remains of Lake Frances has been a problem for local planners ever since flooding sheared off an 8-foot section of the dam in 1990. The dam was funded by Tulsan James W. Sloan, and was a tourist attraction until World War II. The lake was a water source for Watts, West Siloam Springs and Siloam Springs, Arkansas, but silt buildup led to pollutants accumulating.

“This is going to clean up what many folks have known as an eyesore and environmental issue, and if it comes off as we envision, it would not only correct the deficiencies but lend itself to adding to a robust economy in Adair and Delaware counties,” Fite told the Tulsa World.

Before construction can begin the federal Environmental Protection Agency must approve a Clean Water Act permit, and a review process must be completed. Application for the permit was filed in July. Fite told the Tulsa World construction could take two to three years.

“Right now we are really doing our due diligence in the planning and permitting phase,” Fite said. “We’ve got to wait until we get that permit, and then we will be ready to move ahead.”

The GRDA said the park could bring 85,000 visitors and $900,000 to the area each year. There will be a similar park in proximity. The city of Siloam Springs runs a white water park 8 miles upstream from the Lake Frances site.

“We’re happy that the GRDA and Walton Foundation are reaching out to us and partnering with us to ensure everything is being followed responsibly,” Hill said. “We are happy to work with them until the project is complete.”
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