Big Trouble at Lake Ashbaugh

Source: AGFC
Source: AGFC

(AGFC) - Where to begin?  If you are familiar with Lake Ashbaugh you know that the lake seeps bad enough to lose 5 feet of water in a normal year.  This isn't good if the lake has an average depth of 7 feet.  Compound that problem with a major drought and Ashbaugh's 2012 water loss equals almost 8 feet.  If that isn't enough of a problem add increasing water fertility due to overwintering of 10s of thousands of waterfowl for the last 30 years.

These ingredients added together spell a disaster in the making.  The disaster happened the 2nd week in October.  A cold rain that blew through northeast Arkansas that week triggered a massive fish kill at the lake.  We saw evidence that the toughest of fish (gar, carp, bullheads) were not spared, not to mention crappie, catfish and bass.

Cold rains kill microscopic plants called phytoplankton.  Phytoplankton are the product of water fertility and give water its green color.  They are also the principle oxygen producing engines for water bodies.  In the case of Lake Ashbaugh, they died all at once due to the cold rain and the decomposition process sucked the dissolved oxygen out of the water.  This led to the fish kill.

Many folks have asked "How could this have been prevented?"  Fish farmers have been dealing with this kind of problem for years using paddlewheels and maintaining adequate water levels.  These preventative measures were not available at Lake Ashbaugh.  The deep well at the southwest corner of the lake could not provide enough water to maintain the lake's water level.  The best that the well could do was produce 40% of the water loss due to evaporation only.  That doesn't count water loss by seepage.  The Water Hog on the northwest corner is capable of refilling the lake if the GTR canal contains enough water.  The canal was dry so that wasn't an option.  Paddlewheels are not an option on a 500 acre reservoir, especially if there isn't enough water to float them.

Don't forget the waterfowl.  As long as they overwinter at Ashbaugh, the lake's fertility problem will amplify and annual fish kills are a real possibility.

The $100,000 dollar question is what to do about it.  In order to deal with the seepage problem the lake bottom will have to be sealed with a cap of clay.  This solution probably turns it into a $1 million dollar question and it still doesn't solve the waterfowl/fertility question, it just buys some time.  Options will be examined on how to reduce the influx of nutrients by the ducks and geese.  One option is remove the lake from the rest area status and allow hunting during the season.

Another option that will be looked at is try to alter the plankton composition of the water by stocking a fish, such as Nile tilapia, that selectively feeds upon green and blue-green algae.  This will make the lake much less susceptible to dissolved oxygen kills following environmental disturbances.

One thing is for sure, all options will be considered and whatever is decided upon will not be cheap.  The AGFC currently spends around $50,000 each year pumping the lake to normal.

Ashbaugh will be restocked with largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish in 2013.  Jeremy and I will be holding our collective breath to see if 2012 repeats itself.