National Wildlife Refuge System
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along the Kanuti River
Housetops from the submerged Washita Farm poke through the lake at Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, where siltation is posing conservation challenges.
Credit: Melissa Holder, USFWS

A Return to Dry Land




More than sixty–five years ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Washita River in southern Oklahoma as part of a flood control project, submerging much of the 13,000–acre Washita Farm and its surrounding community under a newly created Lake Texoma. Today, rooftops of the former agricultural showplace poke through the surface of the lake — evocative features of Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge, one of very few refuges to boast an underwater ghost town.

But today the land is fighting back. The lake is silting so heavily that it could disappear in 25 to 50 years, says refuge manager Kris Patton. And that worries some local residents, who've come to depend on it for fishing (they use the rooftops to cast for crappie, white bass and catfish). It also poses a conservation challenge for the refuge, created to protect migratory birds.

The average depth of the Cumberland Pool, a 4,500–acre offshoot of the lake where the refuge is located, is now 8 feet where it used to be 14, says Patton. He expects ducks, shorebirds and other wading birds to benefit initially as more shallows are created. But eventually, he says, the drying up of the pool will mean the loss of feeding habitat for migratory waterfowl.

The sediment building in the Cumberland Pool is already taxing refuge resources. Refuge staff are struggling to keep three boat ramps accessible. Patton predicts more changes ahead. "We're just going to have to evolve with those changes if we can't find alternatives," he says. We're going to have to change some of our management practices.

Visitors continue to be drawn to the refuge by its unusual cultural resources. Some of the original farm's 90–year–old structures are still in use: The general store is now the refuge headquarters; the concrete hog barn houses equipment and materials for refuge staff; and one concrete house is used as an educational center. A former priest's home, built in 1932, is being converted into a historical center to provide information about the farm and local communities. The center is tentatively slated to open this fall.

For more information: http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/oklahoma/tishomingo or 580–371–2402.

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