WENDEN – Hundreds of boaters and anglers pass through this small rural farming community every year, headed to the Alamo Lake, 3,500 acres of crystal clear water touted as one of the best fishing spots in Arizona.
The desert oasis, with a population of about 1,000, thrives on tourism this time of year because of its abundance of non-native fish, including largemouth bass, blue gills and black crappie.
But in the past few weeks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers slowly has been lowering lake levels to repair Alamo Dam, which forms the reservoir and protects downstream communities in the Bill Williams River Valley from flooding. Officials with the Arizona Game & Fish Department and others say the recent project is threatening the fish population and revenues at Lake Alamo State Park.
“Without a doubt, some eggs will be lost as a result of a water level decline,” said David Weedman, aquatic habitat program manager for Game & Fish. “Some nests will be dried up. Some nests will be abandoned by the parents who are protecting it.”
– Cronkite News video by Abdel Jimenez
The dam maintenance hasn’t been done in 27 years, said Col. Kirk Gibbs, the commander for the Los Angeles district of the Corps of Engineers. The work is supposed to be done every five years, but “operation/safety constraints” have prevented that since 1990, according to a March report from the Corps of Engineers.
“It’s an exciting thing so we can ensure that this dam is able to do what it’s intended to do, which is protect the downstream communities – about 28,000 people and their homes … from a major flood,” Gibbs said.
The project involves a 20-day-long, 10-foot drawdown of water so divers can safely inspect the dam’s intake sill, which releases the water downstream, and identify necessary repairs. Engineers say the repairs, which could take months, must be done now before the monsoon season.
Opponents argue that the project’s timing will have major consequences on wildlife health and park revenue. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission in March sought a restraining order to stop the project, but a federal judge denied the request.
Mark Knapp, manager of Alamo Lake State Park, said that over the past couple months, hundreds of camping reservations were canceled and thousands of dollars in park revenue were lost after most of the park’s boat ramps were closed.
So far this year, the park has issued about $46,000 in refunds to people who planned to visit the lake, according to records reviewed by Cronkite News.
“We got over a thousand phone calls concerning this and, as we speak, we’re still getting phone calls from people canceling reservations for this,” Knapp said. Boaters are angry with state parks, he said, “and they’re really, highly (angry) with the Corps of Engineers right now.”
Had the Corps of Engineers postponed the project until May, Knapp said, things would have been fine.
“The fish would have spawned, I would’ve turned around and had these boat ramps open, this park would continue to be filled, and then by May, the fish would’ve done their thing, moved out, and then we could let them lower the lake because the boating season would’ve been over,” Knapp said.
Gibbs noted that although the dam provides water for recreational activities, its primary purpose is flood protection.
“There’s a delicate balance there that you have to achieve,” he said. “We took all of that into consideration, and we have talked for years to (Arizona Game & Fish) about the timing of this, concerns, and we worked closely with them and other agencies.”
The federal agency so far has spent $300,000 on the project, a spokesman said.
“Particularly right now, we’ve seen an increase in the funding that’s available for this dam, and that was great news for us,” Gibbs said, adding that the project and its timing will have “minimal” ecological impact on fish populations.
David Van Dorpe, deputy district engineer for the Los Angeles district of the Corps of Engineers, said the agency has worked to accommodate boaters and anglers.
“We wanted to make sure that at least one boat ramp was still open, and it is, and it will remain open until the lake gets some additional water back in it and then the other ones can open back up,” he said.
Wenden resident David Orr, owner of the Wayside Oasis RV Park, said his restaurant and gas station, the only one within a 38-mile radius, is suffering economically as boaters, anglers and RV campers have packed up and left in response to the boat ramp closures.
“That whole lake is basically based around fishing,” Orr said. “They have bass tournaments … I’m talking 200 to 300 boats that bring in a ton of money.”
Orr said many in the community sent letters and complaints to federal officials.
“They didn’t care what anybody had to say about it,” Orr said. “They didn’t care what the state park had to say, they didn’t care what (Game & Fish) had to say. And that’s why we’re upset, honestly. I don’t like the government just coming in and stepping on the little guys.”
Knapp said the park’s tourism will be affected for months.
“It’s going to impact our summer crowd, too,” he said. “In the summertime, we get a lot of water skiers who don’t like Havasu and Pleasant so they come out here.”
Although the lake will be replenished with snowmelt and rainfall, it’s unclear how long that will take.
“We’re in a drought situation and we haven’t even reached our potential yearly rain water,” said John Guthrie, Western region manager for Arizona State Parks. “How long is it going to take to fill the lake back up?”
This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.