To remove the logjams, or not to remove the logjams: that is the question that the US Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) has been mulling over for the past several years.
The Cache River regularly floods in Jackson County on account of a series of four massive logjams between the towns of Grubbs and Amagon, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to local farmers and landowners every year. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) originally expressed concerns that removing the logjams would cause problems to wildlife habitats downstream, but those concerns have finally been resolved and the Corps is expected to issue a permit allowing the logjams to be removed any day now. In May of 2011, spring rains caused the Cache River to flood higher than it has in decades. The resulting devastation spurred a local group of farmers, landowners, and county judges to form the Cache River Association and attempt to finally solve the problem. Jackson County farmer Kenny Clark lost half his crop after that May storm in 2011, and is now the vice president of the Cache River Association. The Cache River Association has essentially taken the reins from the Willow Slough and Old Cache River of Craighead County Drainage Districts, which have been working on this project for the past seven years. Clark has been instrumental in raising the funds to remove the logs and seeking the necessary permit from the Corps. “Governor Beebe, being from this area and knowing the problem, was very helpful in getting the Arkansas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (ANRCC) to approve up to $150,000 for the project,” said Clark. In addition to the funds from the ANRCC, almost 150,000 additional dollars have been pledged by Willow Slough, Old Cache River of Craighead County, and by private landowners (including Kenny Clark). With almost $300,000 ready to be spent, the only thing needed to begin removing the logs is a permit from the Corps. The Cache River falls under the purview of the Corps office in Memphis. Though economic damage to farmers and landowners is a paramount concern, the Corps also has to consider the demands of environmental conservation unique to the area when issuing a permit. The Cache River logjam removal proposal initially provoked some unease among various government organizations, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the FWS. The logjams currently provide a sort of filter, preventing debris and sediment from accumulating below them in higher quantities. If all of the logjams were removed that debris and sediment would naturally flow downstream and accumulate on southerly shores and riverbeds. According to Damon McDermott, Senior Engineer with the Corps in Memphis, the FWS and other groups were mostly concerned about the stream and floodplain wildlife habitats immediately downstream of the logjam, primarily the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a nearly 70,000 acre wildlife refuge managed by the FWS, consists of a 70-mile stretch of Cache River floodplain running along the river through the counties of Jackson, Woodruff, Prairie, and Monroe. It is considered to be one of the most important wintering areas for ducks, and is part of the largest remaining tract of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest (sometimes referred to as “the Big Woods”), in North America. It is also believed to be one of the few remaining habitats of the rare and elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Rapid accumulation of sediment and debris could disturb the Refuge’s ecosystem, with unknown consequences. Apart from this concern, FWS biologist Jason Phillips has pointed out that removing the logjams is a temporary solution at best and that regular maintenance would be needed to keep the river clear. “The reason that the logjams formed where they did,” said Phillips, “is that the Cache River was channelized – carved into straight-lines – between Grubbs in Jackson County and Missouri.” Thus debris-and-sediment-bearing water rushes down from Missouri and spills into the sinuous original curves of the river at Grubbs, where it suddenly slows down and begins silting, or dropping debris and sediment onto the riverbed and shores. Phillips’s point is that one time log removal at this site does nothing to address the underlying problem caused by the Cache River’s channelization north of Grubbs and that therefore the logjams would be likely to reform without regular removal. Kenny Clark agrees with this diagnosis, and calls the logjam removal proposal a “band-aid,” but a necessary one. A more permanent solution would have to involve the de-channelization of the river, causing it to flow back into its original basin between Grubbs and Missouri - but first things first. "We always have to find a balanced approach,” said Jim Pogue, Chief of the Corps’ Public Affairs Office in Memphis. “It is our job to find that middle ground, that compromise, and reach a resolution that everybody can live with.” Over the last few months, the Corps and FWS developed just such a compromise. Their proposal is to permit removal of only two of the four logjams and to require regular maintenance work to ensure that problems aren’t caused downstream. The Cache River Association has agreed to this plan, and thus the final obstacle has been overcome. Finally, the logjam removal operation is ready to begin. The Corps is expected to issue a permit anytime over the next several months.