Months Later, Oklahoma’s Salt Fork River Fish Kill is Still a Mystery

The mysterious Salt Fork fish kill is worrying residents, river-goers and anglers like Baron Owens, whose dad lives on a stretch of the river near Ponca City.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The mysterious Salt Fork fish kill is worrying residents, river-goers and anglers like Baron Owens, whose dad lives on a stretch of the river near Ponca City.

A summer fish kill in north-central Oklahoma is worrying anglers, river-goers and nearby water users.

The Salt Fork River die-off was massive and, still months after it was reported, mysterious. Researchers and state authorities say they still don’t know who or what the killer is.

The scene of the Salt Fork fish kill in June 2013.

Bob Sands / OETA

The scene of the Salt Fork fish kill in June 2013.

Two fish kills were reported to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, records show. The first one on June 3, upstream near Lamont; the second on June 17, near Tonkawa. The two fish kills are likely related, so state authorities are investigating them as one event, officials from the DEQ, state Department of Wildlife Conservation and Corporation Commission tell StateImpact.

“In the areas that overlapped during the kills, there is absolutely zero aquatic life other than turtles,” says Spencer Grace, a state game warden stationed in Kay County.

Most of the Salt Fork’s large fish — including catfish like flatheads and spoonbills — died in the two fish kills, Grace says. The demise of these hardy fish is worrying and puzzling.

Local angler Baron Owens says he watched a parade of 60-pound dead catfish float down the river.

“They were all running up on the bank and dying, but the buzzards wouldn’t even eat them,” he says. “Buzzards will eat anything. I mean, it doesn’t matter. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen something like that. It’s crazy.”

DEQ investigators took water samples from the river and sent dead fish specimens to a lab for analysis. The agency’s final report is pending, but preliminary results showed astronomically high levels of salt, says environmental programs manager Jay Wright.

“When you compare them to data the Water Resource Board has collected over the last 12-15 years, these were some of the highest readings that had been recorded there,” Wright says.

Pass the Salt

Fish kills are common in Oklahoma lakes, rivers and streams — especially in the summer. Most are caused by golden algae, like the June outbreak at Altus-Lugert Lake, which rendered the southwestern Oklahoma reservoir “dead as a fishery.”

Most Oklahoma fish kills are caused by low levels of dissolved oxygen, but preliminary tests of the Salt Fork water showed plenty of dissolved oxygen.

Drought makes fish kills more likely, says Buck Ray, an environmental biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation who’s helped with the Salt Fork investigation.

Thousands of large fish, including flatheads and spoonbills, died in the June fish kill on the Salt Fork River.

Bob Sands / OETA

Thousands of large fish, including flatheads and spoonbills, died in the June fish kill on the Salt Fork River.

“There’s no rain bringing freshwater in, so what’s in the lake or river just stagnates and concentrates,” Ray says.

But Ray says drought alone doesn’t explain the record-high salt content recorded in the Salt Fork River. Strangely, each of the two Salt Fork fish kills followed rainstorms.

“We had fresh water coming in,” says game warden Grace. “Also something else coming with it, either from on the surface or from below.”

Not Well

So where could the salt come from?

One clue might be in the name of the river itself. The Salt Fork is fed by the Great Salt Plains Reservoir, which is flanked by a great salt flat filled with salty crystals and deposits. It’s possible that the rainstorms washed a natural salty deposit into the river.

Officials at the state agencies investigation the fish kill have no record of this happening in the past, but say it’s conceivable.

There’s another source of saltwater in north-central Oklahoma: Oil and natural gas drilling.

The Salt Fork snakes through the Mississippi Lime, a promising oil play that’s one of the state’s most active. Saltwater is a byproduct of many oilfield operations, including drilling. Briny fluid is also used in extraction operations like hydraulic fracturing, the extraction process known as “fracking.” Oilfield saltwater is stored in tanks, transported in trucks and pipelines and injected deep underground into disposal wells designed to trap the toxic water in layers of rock.

But the chemical composition of the salt contamination in the river doesn’t match the brine from a nearby disposal well, says Tim Baker, the Corporation Commission’s pollution abatement manager. The commission is currently testing other disposal wells, he says.

Game warden Grace is advising people to stay out of the river, but drinking water is also a concern. Oklahomans who have wells near the river are have reported problems, Grace says.

It’s unclear if the unknown fish kill contaminant is also responsible for bad well water, but Davy Brown, who lives on the river, says something is definitely wrong with his water.

“I got a water well here and it’s no good,” he says. “They tell me it’s fine to bathe in, but not to drink, so we’re using bottled water.”


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Comments

  • Ted K

    This is some of the best reporting/journalism on the state level (Okla) I have seen in awhile. I hope you guys (Mr Bob Sands & Joe Wertz) won’t give up on this stuff, and will keep your jaws locked down like a pit bull until the Okla DEQ and MADAM Fallin have more than half-ass answers for this. It’s a great SHAME on this state the water is being INTENTIONALLY polluted and it’s an even bigger shame this state of “proueeeeewwwd” to be ignorant illiterates doesn’t even have a blip in it’s blood pressure over this, much less protest it.

    I guess 35+ years of Republicans demolishing funding of public education in Oklahoma is paying off for them in dumb, uninformed, lethargic voters. MADAM Fallin should dawn some white sheets tonight and have a party I guess, as she asked those at her party’s convention in 2012 that wanted to vote for Ron Paul if they were “Obama lovers”. An interesting choice of noun to pick following a man’s name. Although I feel certain it comes naturally to her. Imagine, for example, MADAM Fallin saying “Kerry lovers” to describe those voting for Ron Paul in a different election. I tend to doubt the latter.

    • http://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma Joe Wertz

      Wow, @00061fd23725ec2c87dab7d355dbf6f6:disqus! Thanks for the kind words! Made my Friday!

      We’re not giving up on anything, and I know Bob Sands isn’t either. The environment is important to Oklahomans.

      • PasoFinoCA

        Killing fish is a new pervasive pastime of F&G officials nationwide…..in each case, in each state it is for programs called “restore native fish”. They use Rotenone and Antimyicin A, both deadly toxins. They have been doing this for ten years…or more. Long term effects and impact is not known (see EPA RED paper) and Park officials always say these are “safe” toxins (oxymoron)…. To see more on long term impact on birds, insects and macroinvertegrates see this, (Make sure to read Page 62 and onward)

        ftp://ftp.nmenv.state.nm.us/www/WQCC/Matters/11-06Pisc/WQCC11-06-KirkPatten-TechnicalTestimony-Ex12g.pdf

  • Austinpga

    I used to go their with my father when I was a kid. It is so sad that the fish kill happened. I know so many people that live their and go their for fun, I am currently writing a essay for my ag class to find out why and how it happened.

    • PasoFinoCA

      Please – go Investigate Fish and Game officials use of Rotenone and Antimyicin A on public waters for the past ten years. They use these toxins to “remove fish” in order to “restore native fish”. Massive kills like this look like application of a toxin….

      F&G have written press releases to reassure the public how “safe” these poisons are, but in fact they are not “safe” they are poisons and they are widely used by F&G…..and they are related to the onset of Parkinsons Disease, they kill ALL the insects in the water an cause harm to other birds and animals.

  • shiloh

    I was at the Great Salt Plains State Park yesterday (9/14) and was astonished at the number of turkey buzzards and egrets gathered on the east end of the spillway. There were hundreds of (smelly) dead fish clustered against the rocks and in the corner of the lowest part of the spillway. There were also live fish jumping out of the water. I photographed the scene and noticed that none of the birds were eating the dead fish. Thank you for your reporting!

  • PasoFinoCA

    Investigate Fish and Game officials use of Rotenone and Antimyicin A on public waters for the past ten years. They use these toxins to “remove fish” in order to “restore native fish”. Massive kills like this look like application of a toxin….

    F&G have written press releases to reassure the public how “safe” these poisons are, but in fact they are not “safe” they are poisons and they are widely used by F&G…..and they are related to the onset of Parkinsons Disease, they kill ALL the insects in the water an cause harm to other birds and animals.

  • Reese Jackson

    I politely disagree with the theory on rotenone and poisoning by the government. The fish kill consisted of almost entirely of fish native to Oklahoma, and having worked with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, I feel very confident that use of rotenone on that river would literally be the last thing on their agenda. With that said, my personally theory is linked to the oil industry. I beg officials to consider all of the possibilities in which oil activity may be involved. A. The salt may have leaked from a saltwater disposal well. B. Salt water naturally occurs in great abundance in certain formations below ground; tapping into one of these sources may cause saltwater contamination (and may also explain why inconsistencies were found between the salt in the river and that found in a nearby disposal well. C. Companies exist whose soul purpose is to remove the salt water from a well and truck it to a location where it can be disposed of; there is a chance that one of these companies saw a shortcut and pumped the water into the river which they knew was already naturally salty, thinking they would get away with a cost-saving maneuver free of guilt. I truly believe this is what has destroyed the salt fork ecosystem and punishment should be severe with generous mitigation. God bless the folks working on this case and I hope they stick it to the culprits, whoever it might be

  • Reese Jackson

    I should also mention that I know a man who worked with an oil company and was sent to Tunisia to help with the completion of a well. He told me of a horror story that happened and I believe it is possible that something similar could have happened in this case. As they were drilling, they encountered a formation that was severely over-pressured. They tried to combat this with heavier and heavier mud, but I believe they eventually had to use the emergency shut-off valve. Shortly thereafter, the formation, already over-pressured and now under the force of the mud began to create fissures underground radiating from the well sight. The fissures eventually made their way to the surface or to the land-water interface of nearby rivers and streams, evacuating enormous volumes of hot, salty water. Where the fissures made it to the land surface, it formed geysers shooting water several feet into the air. Where the fissures encountered streams, the hot, salty water instantly killed the thousands of fish inhabiting those waters. It was a true disaster. Now, Im not going to pretend to be an expert on the geology of the salt fork or the logistics of this happening there, but it is another example of how I think the oil industry may have had a hand in this.

    • http://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma Joe Wertz

      Fascinating!

  • Reese Jackson

    Not trying to beat a dead horse but I also disagree with the theory that a “naturally salty deposit” was washed into the river by heavy rains. If this was the case, you would expect the entire salt fork, from the great salt lake to the confluence of the Arkansas to have been polluted roughly evenly. In this situation, two primary stretches of river were exhibited significantly higher signs of contamination, perhaps supporting the theory that someone may have been pumping the salty water into those locations. The first event happened a distance from the Arkansas and was extremely damaging. The culprit may have learned from this mistake and did it a second time closer to the confluence with the Arkansas, which they may have believed would be less noticeable as the contaminants would more rapidly be dispersed. This explains the stagger in events. After the event exploded in the media, no more fish kills were reported, as the culprit may have realized how damaging their actions really were. Just saying…

    • http://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma Joe Wertz

      Interesting observations. Do you live in the area?

  • NWO6b2die

    2/6/2014 There was a 3.0 earthquake in the Great Salt Plains Nat’l Park area. Perhaps the fish kill-off is from a release of sulfur and/or other toxic elements into the Salt Fork River.

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