Mysterious dam leads to query
By Penny Cockerell
Nobody is saying who built a dam that stretches longer than a football field and several feet wide across Baron Fork, a scenic creek in eastern Oklahoma's Adair County.
Not until a fisherman complained to the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission did the apparent violation send tempers flaring and spur state officials to launch a full-force investigation.
Even more intriguing is why -- as Rick Stubblefield, the chairman of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission asks -- and whether taxpayer money and equipment were used to illegally dam up the creek.
According to those who spoke with The Oklahoman, no one has admitted to creating the dam, which environmental agency officials said was built without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and violates the federal Clean Water Act. Substantial fines could result.
The dam -- or levee as some call it -- is a pile of gravel and earth excavated from the creek that shifts the creek's water flow and may influence natural wildlife. Spokesman Ed Engelke of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said such reconstruction can cause stagnant water, algae growth and fish kills.
Regulatory agencies require permits for such activity to ensure this doesn't happen. No such permit was issued. And now, the Department of Environmental Quality is investigating.
At first, rancher Darryl Cates was named as the property owner. According to Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, Cates initially said Adair County Commissioner Sam Chandler had a hand in building the dam. Friday, Cates told The Oklahoman the land was not part of his 450 acres and he had no idea who built the dam.
Chandler has lived a quarter of a mile from the creek for 55 years and Cates said he's known him all his life. He also said neither of them had anything to do with building the dam, and don't know who did.
"I didn't even know that had been done until Ed Fite called me," said Chandler, who added he visited the site after receiving the call. "There's no standing water or fish killed, there's really nothing for this to affect the creek. I don't know what they're trying to pull. I guess they're wanting publicity or something."
Fite and other agency officials, however, have called the violation one of the worst they've ever seen.
Even worse, they said, is that this comes at a time when the state attorney general is fighting a case against poultry companies for violating water standards, and while the state is lecturing Arkansas about complying with the Clean Water Act.
Rick Stubblefield, who chairs the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission from Adair County, is furious -- and wants to know exactly who to blame. But no one will claim the substantial project, which took tractors and bulldozers to accomplish.
"If whoever was involved in the construction of the dam is proud of what they have done and thinks it improves Baron Fork, then why all the running away from who is responsible for it and who owns the property?" Stubblefield asked.
"I'm curious as to why the dam was constructed in the first place -- was this built to enhance the value of a particular piece of property? Why would you do all this construction in this particular location? If a county commissioner supports the building of dams and work that amounts to gravel mining in a scenic stream, then maybe it's time for the state of Oklahoma to vote one way or the other on whether they want scenic stream designations at all."
Stubblefield said this is the second Clean Water Act violation in Adair County the last 12 months. The last violation, he said, cost the violator $75,000 -- and, he said, it was 2 percent as bad as this one.
Chandler disagrees. He calls the Baron Creek project minor, saying he understands that a small amount of gravel was moved to reshape the creek to its original form. Chandler also challenged the regulating agencies to form some organized effort to ensure Adair County's waterways are protected.
And he again stressed his lack of involvement in the project.
"There was never any county equipment or taxpayer money that had anything to do with this. First of all I would never do that anyway. I know you have to get a permit to work in a creek or a channel," Chandler said.
"Whoever said that is a bald-faced liar."