On Sept. 1, 2023, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission opened the gates on the south end of Lake Conway and began to slowly drain the 6,700-acre lake. Completely draining the lake is the first step toward renovating the country’s largest lake ever built by a conservation organization.
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Director Austin Booth says the project looks forward to a renewed Lake Conway, but also honors the legacy of those who worked to create the lake more than 70 years ago.
“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,” Booth said.
The first phase of lake restoration is accomplished by Mother Nature. Since opening more than 70 years ago, silt and sediment have built up on the lake’s bottom. This natural byproduct of aging has taken away as much as 3 feet of depth in portions of the lake and much of the lake’s prime spawning habitat. Engineers and biologists estimate that 40 percent of the lake’s original 40,000-acre-foot volume has been replaced with sediment, leaving many boathouses in the northern quarter of the lake inaccessible. An extended drawdown will let the silt dry and compact, regaining some lost depth. The result is more volume for fish and fishermen. The increased depth could even restore several hundred acres of surface area to a fishable depth.
During the drying process, organic matter trapped in the sediment will decompose and be taken up by grass, brush, and trees. Those nutrients will be recycled into the system. When the lake is filled, this new growth will create excellent cover the fishery has not seen in decades. A similar project, conducted at Lower White Oak Lake in 2012, has yielded exceptional results from the new lake effect of flooding such growth and managing from a clean slate.
Draining the lake will enable the AGFC to start with a clean slate and focus the lake’s nutrients on desirable species, including crappie, bream, Florida largemouth bass, and flathead catfish. These will all be stocked to optimize future fishing. The lake’s restored fertility will allow these fish to grow quickly.
Finally, draining the lake will allow seven decades of litter and debris to be removed. Volunteers and area conservation organizations will work to make sure Lake Conway will reopen with a clean and healthy lakebed.
While Mother Nature works to restore the natural potential of the lake, the State Game and Fish Commission will take on an ambitious construction program, preparing to welcome tens of thousands of anglers annually. All public access areas and public fishing areas will be improved with three main goals in mind: habitat preservation, bank fishing enhancements, and the addition of amenities. Boat ramp capacity, quality, and parking will be increased where needed. The 23 miles of boat lanes on the lake will be cleared of stumps and clearly marked. And more than 3,000 individual fishing structures will help add new habitat to the lake.
Draining the lake also presents an opportunity for private landowners and residents around the lake to improve their permitted structures, enhancing both functionality and aesthetics. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and other local organizations will help facilitate repairing or replacing dilapidated structures on Lake Conway.
Finally, Lake Conway’s water management infrastructure will be completely rebuilt. This includes the total replacement of the original dam and spillway, which were constructed in 1948. A spillway will be added adjacent to the current dam. This will not only enhance the lake’s water management capabilities but also provide an opportunity for aesthetic improvements. The new dam will also feature a pedestrian bridge and improved bank fishing access.
A lot has changed since Lake Conway was opened more than seven decades ago. The city of Conway on the northern shore has added more than 60,000 residents. People recreate and travel differently. While Lake Conway will always remain a destination for fishing and hunting, the renovation project is an opportunity to reimagine how new user groups can also enjoy the lake.
The City of Conway, Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, and Conway Development Corporation are partnering on a master plan to create an Urban Natural Area on the northwestern portion of the lake adjoining the city. The plan will emphasize connectivity to area bike and pedestrian trails, the creation of water trails and islands for primitive lodging or recreation, as well as improved bank fishing access. The city of Conway’s reimagined lakeshore will further establish Lake Conway as a destination for anyone in central Arkansas who loves the outdoors.