The water level at Lake Conway has been drawn down before, but new plans call for a more extensive fix. Courtesy of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

On any given day, you can find Cole and Jay Harken on the water. They live right on Lake Conway, and their time is usually spent fishing in the company of great herons, cypress trees and water tupelos. It’s not just for recreation – their livelihood depends on it. 

The Harkens make fishing content for Youtube, where they share an enthusiasm for fish and wildlife with an audience of over 250,000. Popular videos promise LAKE MONSTERS, ANCIENT BEASTS and MYSTERIOUS CREATURES. They travel across the state, but about 80% of their videos are filmed at home on Lake Conway. 

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“In our travels we’ve come to learn there’s not a whole lot better than where we’re at,” Cole Harken said. 

As of September 1 though, the Harkens’ home turf is going down the drain. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission approved plans June 15 for major renovations which will require Lake Conway to be drained completely for an estimated five years.

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The project has been in the works for almost two decades, and with a price tag estimated at up to $15 million, it will be the largest undertaking in the Commission’s 108-year history. The plan has three goals – replacing and modernizing infrastructure, improving aquatic habitat and improving access. 

Officials from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission displayed this poster at a recent meeting to show how much sediment has collected over time.

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“The AGFC is not just doubling down on outdoor recreation on Lake Conway and Faulkner County, but also on the conservation ethos that existed here in the 1940s, that we know is alive and well in 2023, and so that future Arkansans can enjoy Lake Conway at its full potential,” Game and Fish Director Austin Booth said in a press release. 

Though the goal of the renovations is to ultimately make the lake healthier, the news was met with considerable upset from anglers and lakeside residents. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission hosted a public forum Monday night, and about 120 Conwegians showed up. 

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One resident, Chad Blazer, just moved to Conway from Arizona last year. He selected Lake Conway for the sole purpose of being able to fish in his own backyard. With this dream temporarily thwarted, will he stick around? Blazer suspects he can’t sell the house with a swamp out back. 

Another attendee, Jerry Sterling, age 71, said he’s been fishing on the lake since he was about 9 years old. Sterling knows the project needs to be done, but feels sad. He doesn’t expect he’ll get to fish on the lake again in his lifetime, and he mourns for his grandson, who just got hooked on fishing. 

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When Sterling first started fishing with his dad, they couldn’t see more than 50 yards – it was all trees. Lake Conway has changed a lot since then. In the 75 years since the lake’s creation, the combined forces of wind, wave and residential development have caused major sediment buildup. About three feet of muck now occupies the lake bottom, and the Game and Fish Commission estimates a third of the original water volume has been lost. This makes navigation via boat perilous in the upper two arms of the lake, and means less spawning habitat overall for fish.

The idea behind draining the lake is that once the water’s gone, the sunbaked lakebed will dry out, the sediment will compact, and the decades of lost depth will be restored. New vegetation will grow and provide future habitat for fish and the foundations of a healthy food chain. 

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Once the lake is drained, improvements can be made more easily, Game and Fish officials said.

Having the water temporarily drained away will allow for the construction of a new dam and spillway, a necessary upgrade considering the original dam is nearing the end of its lifespan. Much more is planned for the lake, including shoreline reinforcement, updating boat lanes and adding artificial habitat and gravel spawning beds.

Booth explained this plan Monday night and took questions from the crowd. Reactions ranged from resignation to indignation. Declining property values were top of mind. Some worried about what will become of the wildlife. Booth assured the audience that in the long term property value is expected to increase, and the majority of fish and wildlife will simply follow the water as it drains into Palarm Creek. 

When asked about the gators, Booth quoted Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry: They’ll just swim on down to the Arkansas River and go visit their kin in Louisiana. This drew laughter from an otherwise tense crowd. 

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Speaking of mysterious creatures, no one mentioned what might become of the Lake Conway Monster, but we at the Arkansas Times think this may be a good chance to prove or disprove its existence once and for all.

Many of the people at Monday’s meeting said they were concerned by the timeline. While it depends on Mother Nature, Booth said they do not anticipate refilling the lake until 2028. 

In an interview prior to Monday’s meeting, Game and Fish Deputy Director Ben Batten said he understands why people are upset, but he considers this project a necessary investment in the future.

“At some point something new is going to have to be done. We’d rather do it proactively than wait till the dam is breaking apart and the lake drains itself,” Batten said. “The nice thing about having done this before is I already know it ends well. And the lake will be more sustainable for decades to come.”

Batten references the extensive renovations at Lake Poinsett where the Commission made emergency infrastructure repairs, shoreline reinforcements, and both artificial and natural habitat additions. The AGFC has also seen success at White Oak Lake, where similar management created a thriving fishery.

An additional public meeting is planned for 6 p.m. June 29 at Mayflower City Hall, and the Commission will vote July 20 to lift harvest limits. The final few months before Lake Conway’s drawdown will be an angler free-for-all.

The Game and Fish Commission has the experience to back them up, but in the court of public opinion, whether or not this is worth it remains to be seen. And as for Cole and Jay Harken, at least for the time being, they’ll have to move on to other waters.