Monday, February 21, 2011

Stream Pollution - Illinois River, Arkansas/Oklahoma

I do think that Oklahoma is not paying attention to all the urban development and pollution running into the Illinois River - through Clear Creek, Osage Creek, and other local streams . . . streams running out of Rogers, Bentonville, Fayetteville, etc.

An example of water run-off issues is that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is looking to relocate from Centerton, AR - outside of Bentonville. The spring that once gave water to the hatchery cannot provide enough outflow - the water which once seeped into the ground now flows over concrete and pavement - where there was once abundant farm land.

Those streams run off into the Illinois Watershed and into the Elk River through Sugar Creek . . . Northwest Arkansas is on several watersheds; White River, Illinois and some other stuff in Missouri and Oklahoma.

Here is an article from a group trying to get the Illinois River back on it's feet. In my opinion, it's not just the farms, it's urban development . . . the banks are washing away, algae blooms are increasing and folks are littering such as a recent issue with someone dumping port-a-potty chemicals into the Illinois River in the Prairie Grove area.

Why would they put a housing development 50 yards from the Illinois River?? Then again, we've got new golf courses popping up along the Illinois River Watershed and who knows what chemicals are running off into the streams? Not to mention that they are altering the banks and causing more erosion.


By Ed Brocksmith, STIR, Inc.

The Environmental Protection Agency has launched a two-year study of Illinois River water pollution. The Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study is expected to set limits for pollutants that hurt the river’s water quality, safety, and recreational value. Wisely, EPA will approach the study by looking at the entire watershed, not at the singular interests of Arkansas or Oklahoma. Tenkiller Lake, having an entirely separate, complex ecological dynamic, should benefit from adoption of a TMDL for the Illinois River.

EPA defines a TMDL as: “a calculation of a pollutant load that assures that when implemented, an impaired water will attain and maintain applicable water quality standards.” Phosphorus most certainly will be an object of any TMDLs for the Illinois River watershed. From 2000 – 2004, it’s estimated that between 391,000 to 712,000 pounds of phosphorous entered Tenkiller Lake. Phosphorus does not disappear and is recycled from lake sediments for use over and over by algae.

If you will kindly indulge a comparison to a crime scene investigation on a popular television show, you might think of a TMDL study as CSI: Illinois River. Imagine forensic investigators pouring over DNA evidence and spraying luminol up and down the Illinois River, setting the entire watershed aglow. The tell tale bright green which indicates blood on TV, will instead point to evidence of phosphorus, the nutrient that promotes the growth of algae. In great amounts, algae degrade water clarity; rob fish of oxygen, and cause taste and odor problems. Some algae can even be toxic to humans, pets and livestock.

Complicating this crime scene is the fact that investigators in Arkansas and Oklahoma are not looking in the same box of evidence. Oklahoma water quality agencies conduct tests at normal, base flow, river conditions as well as during storm events called peak flow. Arkansas abandoned this type of testing, opting instead to test only at base flow conditions. This explains why phosphorus levels are several times greater at Watts, Oklahoma on our border than they are just upstream in Arkansas.

According to Dr. Bill Andrews of the USGS Oklahoma Water Science Center, the disparity in water sampling is “like comparing 19th century and 21st century medical technology.”

“Oklahoma’s flow-weighted testing is more representative of actual conditions,” Andrews told a Tahlequah meeting sponsored by the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. “We believe that we have found the right way (for both the river and the lake) to do it.”

Eliminating peak flow testing ignores phosphorus carried from fields, yards, and parking lots by stormwater runoff. Runoff accounts for an estimated 78% of the phosphorus load entering beautiful Lake Tenkiller. This is called nonpoint source pollution since there are no obvious pipes or channels. The bulk of phosphorus in runoff is from animal feeding operations and in our region, this means chicken and cattle manure spread on pastures surrounding poultry farms. When only base flow conditions are sampled, phosphorus from sewage treatment plants, estimated to be about 35 percent of watershed phosphorous, is unfairly emphasized. This has placed Oklahoma water quality agencies at a stalemate, forcing the EPA to conduct the TMDL study.

Water quality regulations themselves are different in Arkansas. While Oklahoma has what’s called a numeric water quality standard for phosphorus in the Illinois River, Arkansas has only words to describe impairment. This is called a narrative water quality standard which can be alright if supported by scientific data. But the lack of a numeric standard permits Arkansas to conveniently ignore water quality impairments in reports it has to make to the EPA. Calling Arkansas’ hand, EPA usually amends Arkansas’ list of impaired state waters, naming some streams in the Illinois River watershed as impaired.

Oklahoma’s numeric standard for phosphorus is .037 parts per million (mg/L). It has been compared to an ounce of phosphorus in an Olympic-size swimming pool. The limit has been roundly criticized by farming interests and by Arkansas authorities who are lobbying the EPA to relax standards for sewage treatment plants. The .037 standard for the six Oklahoma Scenic Rivers, all originating in Arkansas, must be achieved by 2012. The limit was driven by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling after Oklahoma and Save the Illinois River, Inc. (STIR) sued EPA over discharge of Fayetteville, Arkansas’ sewage to the Illinois River watershed. Since the high court’s ruling, and to their credit, northwest Arkansas cities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce phosphorus from sewage treatment plants. Tahlequah and Westville, the only Oklahoma cities with sewage plants in the watershed, face major upgrades to reduce phosphorus. Reduction in phosphorus from cities is believed to have greatly benefited Tenkiller Lake which, sadly, is by no means free of degradation. In the future, Tahlequah just might have to discharge its waste outside the Illinois River watershed further relieving the pressure on Tenkiller Lake.

Ahead of the pending EPA TMDL, the mood of many of our neighbors to the East is one of great anxiety because Oklahoma pledged to reevaluate the .037 limit before 2012. Recent studies by the USGS seem to show that Oklahoma .037 phosphorus limit still is viable despite claims by Arkansas leaders that it’s unachievable and would curtail northwest Arkansas’ economy. Dr. Dave Mueller, USGS Central Region water quality specialist, said recently that Oklahoma’s .037 phosphorus standard appears viable. He said that recent work at sites in Oklahoma’s EPA Nutrient Region show results “similar” to the Clark Report, the basis for the .037 standard.

Oklahoma has attempted to get at nonpoint pollution sources which, unlike municipalities, are unregulated by federal law. A verdict in a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed by Oklahoma against Arkansas poultry companies is being awaited. Poultry industry giants including Tyson and Simmons Foods defended their activities and blamed others including the cities for the huge amount of phosphorus in the Illinois River watershed.

The comparison of an Illinois River watershed TMDL study to a crime scene investigation may not be far-fetched. What’s missing are the long, fluttering barriers of bright yellow crime scene tape and detectives armed with bottles of magic fluid used to find blood traces. The cops on the beat, EPA, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, all have allowed the Illinois River to slide into decay by not establishing TMDLs which are required by the federal Clean Water Act passed more than 30 years ago. What has happened to the once clear Illinois River and to Tenkiller Lake certainly is a crime and it’s time we get to the bottom of it.

1 comment:

  1. I really do enjoy your blogs! Granted I live in vegas but I am always interested in what is going on elsewhere in the fishing world!