The Fish that Saved a River

In the waters of Clinton’s Archey Fork swims a tiny creature making really big waves

SIX-LINED RACERUNNERS, green lizards with blurring speed, zip through the gravel and sand as I make my way to a fork of the Little Red River in Clinton’s Archey Fork Park. Cool, crystalline waters ripple over rocky shoals. Under the riffles, within the cracks and crevices where the current’s unity and power is dissolved, a tiny and fragile ecosystem pulses with life. I know because, after slip-sliding over algae-slicked stones, nearly taking a plunge several times over, I’ve gotten a close-up look for myself.

Up ahead, I see a flash of gray as one of my guides for the day, Joy Wasson, nearly takes a closer-than-comfortable look herself. A river conservation program director with the Nature Conservancy-Arkansas, Joy knows the area better than most, having spent the past five years working on restoring our quarry’s home. Elsewhere, there are fisheries biologist Brian Wagner and environmental coordination biologist Justin Stroman, both of whom are with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and are much more surefooted in the water. Just behind them is AGFC summer intern/Arkansas Tech University biology student Joseph Minton, whose shirt, damp from splashes of a near spill, clings to his back.

As we wade through the shin-deep shoals, Joy points out some of her handiwork just upstream—a bank fortified with woody debris that, at first glance, might be mistaken for driftwood carried downstream. But the bank’s placement is strategic. It’s the cause of the riffles, and the riffles are the reason we’re here searching for a tiny fish, which though barely over 2 1/2 inches at best, has had an enormous ripple effect on its habitat. The fish in question is why the Archey Fork flows naturally through the park. It’s the reason a town that once nearly drowned in flood waters likely won’t worry about flooding again. And it’s a fish that is found nowhere else on Earth but here. Its name? The yellowcheek darter.

THE YELLOWCHEEK DARTER doesn’t live there, but the postcard-pretty Greers Ferry Lake lies at the center of the fish’s story. The lake attracts boaters, water skiers, jet skiers, swimmers and anglers from all over the state and country to its manufactured paradise. Natural it may appear, but manufactured it is. The lake was established by damming the Little Red River, an engineering marvel lauded (and celebrated by President John F. Kennedy, who was present at its dedication) upon its completion in 1963. That celebration, though, also marked the road to demise for the yellowcheek darter.

The yellowcheek, a sculpted creation of the hills, evolved and formed in channels carved by the river long before such things were recorded. As the hollows flooded with what was lapping lake water, the vigorous streams that make up the Little Red River were disconnected, destroying a large portion of the yellowcheek’s native range. Those upper tributaries of the Little Red—the Archey, Middle, South and Devil’s forks—are the only places on Earth where you can still find a yellowcheek darter, which can’t survive in a lake or in the frigid flow released below a dam. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the yellowcheek darter as endangered in 2011, and it’s still on that list.)

Out in the currents of the Archey Fork, Joy, Justin and Joseph gently shuffle their feet along the creek bed, dislodging stones and various organisms while Brian handles the seine. “They really like to hide under these boulders,” says Joy. The trio together lift a big rock, and silty water flows downstream into the waiting net. I notice tiny dark bodies caught by the cords and can barely cap my giddiness. Born under the sign of the fishes, an angler from earliest memory and hopeful for reincarnation as an otter, I’m moved by creeks and water denizens in ways that, try as I might, are impossible to articulate. And right here, right now, there is the strong possibility that I’ll see one of the rarest of those denizens.

“We’ve got a crawfish here,” says Justin. “Hey, there’s a fish. And it’s a darter.”

I’m beaming.

“Well, it’s a rainbow, I think,” says Justin.

I’m not beaming now, but I’m still grinning. Rainbow darters are beautiful fish. This one appears to be a male with only faint traces of his spectacular spawning colors still intact. There are a couple other rainbow darters flipping in the seine, along with another crawfish. A few more shuffles and a few more boulders produce the same results.

All darters are small, with most species measuring 2 to 5 inches in length, but as a group, they are among the most eye-catching fish in North America. Every color of the spectrum is represented at least once among the darter species, from the blue and fire orange of the rainbow darter to the teal green and jade of the greenside darter and all colors in between. If you’ve spent any time in observation while enjoying Arkansas’ mountain creeks, you’ve seen them, though you probably didn’t know it. Darters have reduced or absent swim bladders, an organ that provides buoyancy for fish, which is why and how they make their livings in the substrate of waterways. When alarmed, their first defense is to freeze. But when threatened, they jet through the water in quick spurts—darting, if you will, and always hugging the bottom—in a zigzag pattern to take shelter under the nearest rock. All the darters, even those of duller pigmentation, are exquisite in form and design.

Handsome as it is, the darter sits in a precarious situation. Small-stream fishes can’t move from one stream to another if conditions get bad. This isolation leads to the development of new species, which is why there are so many different kinds of darters, but it’s also why they’re susceptible to any disturbance in their environment.

Yellowcheeks require boulders, which, when compared with what I know about other darter species, is a peculiar preference. In my own observations, I usually find darters near the swifter water, often just upstream from where a shoal empties into a pool, but not necessarily around big rocks, and often they can be found in the pools. But not yellowcheeks.

“They do not ever exist in the pools,” Joy says as Brian mans the seine, looking for our fish among the boulders. “And when the water gets really low, I wonder where they go. Brian, you might be able to speak to that.” But Brian only eliminates possible answers. “Well, that’s the big question,” says Brian. “We’ve never found them in pools and as, in recent years, droughts are becoming more common and severe.” So where do they go? “Of course, we’ve got the lake downstream, but that’s a big pool,” says Brian. Joy wonders if they bury down into the gravel of a stream bed, seeking out the tiny seeps that can cover a 2-inch fish. She almost visibly shudders at the thought. “That’s some harsh conditions,” she says.

Joy assures me the yellowcheeks are here today, though. And she says it’s because a lot of different players—conservation groups, state agencies, a community and even an energy company—came to the rescue of a watershed years before. “It was kind of a perfect storm for all of the right reasons,” says Joy. And that perfect virtual storm began in the aftermath of a very real storm in 1982.

“IMAGINE 9 FEET of water in downtown Clinton.”

Don Richardson, a former mayor of Clinton, is talking about flood waters that spilled into town nearly 35 years ago. 1982 was a meteorologically historical year for Arkansas with 78 tornadoes (the third highest annual total ever) and a December downpour of near biblical proportions in northern Arkansas. Parts of the city of Clinton, those settled in close to the Archey and South forks, were devastated.

“So they had to do something,” Don says, “and they looked at three different things: Put a dam on the Archey Fork, for which there was no money. Then they looked at buying out the town and moving everybody up on the hill, and that was kind of impractical.” The most feasible solution was having the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turn Archey Fork into essentially a ditch. And they did. Channelized 100 feet wide from the bridge of the Archey Fork down to the confluence of the South Fork, it was even called the Clinton Ditch. Actual construction of the channel happened in late 1985 into ’86.

Channelization of a waterway does one thing: move water. But the processes that build habitat, sustain riparian areas keeping stream banks intact and make a stream almost a living organism unto itself are simply bypassed in the name of cold utilitarian efficiency. Also, the channel was hideous. “It kept us from flooding, but it was an ugly eyesore,” says Don. “And the other thing was that we were losing a lot of land. Stream-bank erosion was rampant.”

Don, whose four-year term as mayor came shortly after the channel was constructed, went on to other opportunities, including a stint in D.C. When he settled down back in his hometown in 2001, the stream-bank erosion was an even bigger problem. “I told the mayor we needed to gather up some folks here and see what we can do,” he says.

The folks Don gathered up included the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, among others. USFWS representatives saw what could be an opportunity for stream-habitat restoration, which would benefit the yellowcheek darter, a species not then officially listed as endangered but fading fast, and other threatened species. (The Little Red River watershed is home to at least 20 other species of interest, including the endangered speckled pocketbook mussel.) The service decided to fund a study by The Nature Conservancy on the feasibility of restoring yellowcheek habitat, but there was need for big money.

“Finding support was tough,” says Don.

Nearly a decade later, Don joined the Arkansas National Resources Commission just as the Fayetteville shale natural-gas boom was peaking in the area. It was just the opportunity he’d been waiting for. Along with Scott Simon from The Nature Conservancy, Don suggested a stream mitigation bank with the natural-gas-extraction companies. Mitigation banking is a system of credits and debits created to ensure that ecological loss, especially to wetlands and streams resulting from various development works, is compensated for by the preservation and restoration of wetlands, streams and other natural habitats. (“When they screw up something, they can buy credits, and we can do our project,” Don explains.) The hopeful result is that there is no net loss to the environment. Don and Scott pitched the idea to Southwestern Energy (SWN), a prominent natural-gas-extraction company, and waited for a reply from SWN’s headquarters in Houston with fingers crossed. They were pleasantly surprised.

“Southwestern came back and said they wanted to support it all just because it was the right thing,” says Don.

Now with funding from SWN to the tune of $1.8 million, The Nature Conservancy moved forward with a three-phase plan. “We’ve got two of the three phases done,” says Joy. The third phase is still waiting on funding, but there is hope that SWN will step to the plate again. “We asked them about funding it,” says Don. “They didn’t say ‘no,’ but they didn’t say ‘yes,’ either.”

BUILDING FISH HABITAT and saving the banks in a gutted stream is a study in ecology and engineering. It all starts with shoring up the banks. “When you’ve got an overwidened channel, it becomes more shallow, and the water heats up,” says Joy. “There’s not a lot of available habitat. So we get large hardwood trees and cut the root wads off, and that’s our foundation. And then we take the logs with the root wads intact and cantilever those over the foundation logs. That creates a nice hard surface here that keeps the bank in place.”

Currents tug my legs as Joy points upstream toward what I first thought was haphazard debris stacked by the whims of high water. She says the best thing about this woody structure is that fish and other aquatic organisms move in quickly. “When we would build a rock structure, we would have to wait until the vegetation started growing, and then it grew over the bank before fish would come back in and inhabit the spot,” says Joy. “With this, after the first flow event, we’ve got fish inhabiting it. We’ve got immediate cover. We used a couple of rock structures to build the riffles and then moved in the boulders for habitat.”

Joy, Brian, Justin and Joseph are still rolling rocks and catching various creek inhabitants, carefully identifying fish and placing crayfish back in the silver tumble of water as I watch over their shoulders. And then unexpectedly, as these moments always seem to happen, Justin identifies our first yellowcheek. It’s a nature-nerd bucket-list check mark and a humbling opportunity. It’s also a testament to people who cared about a mostly unknown fish, an energy company that cared about doing the right thing and a community willing to consider that working within the designs of nature can be most beneficial for all. “The interest draws from several angles,” says Joy. “But we want to bring back recreation; we want people to value the river. We want people to use it. When people are disconnected from the river, from nature, it becomes less important.”

Benefits of restoring the banks of Archey Fork were also quickly noticed on the normally dry land of the park. “When we had these floods before, the water would stay up for days,” says Don. “Now, though it still floods the park, it only stays for a few hours.”

It’s easy to see that various goals are what ultimately restored yellowcheek darter habitat, and the yellowcheek population is growing. Still on the Endangered Species List, yellowcheek darters are slowly gaining ground, right alongside the soil and habitat on the banks of Archey Fork. It’s also clear to the objective eye that saving the yellowcheek ultimately saved the creek and the park. After all, SWN didn’t pony up nearly $2 million for park restoration. Not directly, anyway.

The revitalization of Archey Fork has transformed its namesake park into a regular stop, a sampling of the Ozarks for travelers heading north on U.S. 65 into the hills. Regular stops at the park often translate into a regular boost to the local economy. Still, most folks in town wouldn’t know a yellowcheek darter from any other fish in the creek, and they likely don’t know that saving a fish is why more tourists are eating at the local restaurants and why the flood waters of Archey Fork drain quicker. “The people in the community don’t care about a little fish,” Don had told me. “They just don’t. But they do care that we had an ugly eyesore, and now we’ve got a river that’s usable, that people can fish and float. I don’t think the darter resonates with the people, but the fact that the bigger fish are back, the smallmouth and such, does.”

But Don knows. And though he hedges just a bit, he gives credit where credit is due. “I think the darter is what got it started.”

Johnny Carrol Sain is a homegrown Arkansas freelance writer and editor. He was born, raised and currently lives in the River Valley region and is continually amazed at the wonders and joys found here in The Natural State.