Why Oklahoma’s Newest Lake Might be Built by Fort Smith, Arkansas

  • Logan Layden
Fort Smith Public Utilities Director Steve Parke.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Fort Smith Public Utilities Director Steve Parke.

In Oklahoma, the natural beauty of Lee Creek — one of the state’s scenic rivers — is protected by state law. In Arkansas, Lee Creek is an important water source for fast-growing Fort Smith. Now, Fort Smith has a plan to turn Lee Creek into Oklahoma’s next lake, and reignite a dispute that was settled more than 20 years ago.

A decades-old fight

If Fort Smith had its way in late ’80s and early ’90s, there’d already be a large reservoir on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. The city’s plan back then was for a lake much larger than the current Lee Creek Reservoir, which would spill into hundreds of acres of Sequoyah County — in Oklahoma.

Jay Hannah is part of the reason why Fort Smith’s plans were never realized.

“They had a rather ambitious plan,” Hannah tells StateImpact. “My recollection from the early ’90s and reading through the materials is that they had a plan to increase the height of the impoundment, and therefore be able to adjust the flowage so that they could increase the volume of the lake. Ed and I denied that request.”

He’s talking about Ed Fite, who, along with Hannah, made up a two-man Lee Creek Commission appointed by Oklahoma’s then-Gov. David Walters. Their orders: Take a hard line against Fort Smith’s designs on Lee Creek.

“Just vote no,” Fite says about the committee’s instructions at the time.

At the time, Oklahoma wasn’t in the mood to negotiate over Lee Creek. The whole reason for the commission was Arkansas had just dammed the river after years of resistance from environmental groups and the State of Oklahoma that culminated in a federal lawsuit and an 11th-hour agreement.

“That case was docketed in Denver, Colorado,” Hannah says. “And the attorney general of Oklahoma and the attorney general of Arkansas were on their way into the courtroom when they met in the hallway and said, you know, we’ve been neighbors here for a long time, maybe we should have an amicable discussion about Lee Creek.”

The two attorneys general decided Fort Smith could have the dam that created the current reservoir, but any future expansion would require Oklahoma’s approval. Fite, who now serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, has that section of state law bookmarked:

“The stream or river shall not be impounded by any large dam or structure, except as specifically authorized by the legislature,” Fite reads from a book of Oklahoma statutes.

The law carves out another exception for communities wanting to use a scenic river as a water supply, but only if the project doesn’t “significantly interfere with the preservation of the stream as a scenic, free-flowing stream.”

Fite says Lee Creek changes as it approaches the current reservoir.

“As I get closer to Webber Creek, the characteristics of the Lee Creek as a free-flowing stream have been all but negated because of the impoundment downstream,” Fite says. “It looks like a river, but it’s really just water that’s being held back.”

The current Lee Creek Reservoir near Van Buren, Ark.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

The current Lee Creek Reservoir near Van Buren, Ark.

Round two begins

He says enlarging the reservoir would damage the natural flow of Lee Creek. For more than 20 years Fort Smith hasn’t tried, until now. Fort Smith’s Public Utilities Director, Steve Parke, confirms the city is in the process of buying land to expand the lake. And the land it’s buying is in Oklahoma.

“Recently we had three property owners who desired to sell their property to Fort Smith for that future purpose, and we picked up another 70-plus acres,” Parke says. “And we still have about another 600-acres, going from memory, that would have to be acquired.”

So Oklahoma’s next lake could belong to Arkansas. The process will take decades, and there are a myriad of obstacles that could get in the way of Fort Smith’s plans. Ed Fite is one of those obstacles.

“When I float the Lee Creek in a canoe or a kayak, the water has kind of a blue glacier cast to it. It’s not as crystal clear as the Illinois will be this time of year. It has kind of a fog to it,” Fite says.

And there’s another player here who could have a big say in whether Lee Creek gets turned into a much larger lake.

“The other gorilla in the closet is going to be the Cherokee Nation,” Fite says. “The Cherokee Nation is not the Cherokee Nation of the ’80s now.”

He describes the cobblestone river bottom that narrows and widens as Lee Creek meanders along the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, a reminder of how arbitrary the border is when it comes to water.