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Park service focused on testing Big Creek

By Ryan McGeeney

This article was published August 6, 2014 at 4:29 a.m.

As Faron Usrey wades into the Buffalo National River at its confluence with Big Creek, armed with a small, plastic sample jar and a tiny sealable bag, he knows he's not going to be able to capture everything he's looking for.

Usrey, an aquatic ecologist with the Buffalo National River, has been collecting data in this way for more than 18 years. He employs a number of tools -- some designed to help calculate the volume of water flowing through a stream, and others that detect dissolved oxygen, electrolytes and other components.

Much of the job comes down to getting waist-deep in the river, which in itself can sometimes be a limiting factor.

"Most of the spring, I haven't been able to get a discharge measurement here [at Big Creek], because it's above my waist -- it's unsafe," Usrey said. "If we can't get it by wading, we don't get it at all."

But establishing a thorough characterization of river conditions near Big Creek has become a focal point, not only for Usrey, but for park administrators and much of the state's scientific environmental community at large.

In 2012, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality issued an operational permit to C&H Hog Farms, a large-scale, concentrated animal-feeding operation near Big Creek, about 6 miles upstream from its confluence with the Buffalo National River.

In 2013, as public concern over the possibility of high concentrations of nutrients and bacteria associated with hog manure ending up in the river grew, Gov. Mike Beebe commissioned a research team from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture to establish soil- and water-quality monitoring stations in the surrounding area.

While UA's Big Creek research team has focused on the creek and the land immediately surrounding C&H Hog Farms, Usrey has been focused on changes in the Buffalo National River itself, beginning with its confluence with Big Creek and continuing downstream.

Although national park staff members have gathered data on certain water-quality characteristics for more than 30 years, refocused efforts on establishing "base line" data for levels of dissolved oxygen and E. coli in the river downstream from Big Creek didn't begin until March 2013. Dissolved oxygen is necessary for supporting fish and smaller aquatic life and can be suppressed when large amounts of phosphorus enter a water body. E. coli is a bacteria commonly associated with animal waste.

"Dissolved oxygen seems to be driving everything," Usrey said. He said dissolved oxygen is typically a good indicator of the overall levels of nutrients and other components in a water body. If the dissolved oxygen drops below 5 parts per million for more than eight consecutive hours in a section of river, it can drive changes in fish and invertebrates, he said.

"If it does that long enough, it kills things, or the fish just leave," Usrey said.

During the annual conference of the Arkansas Water Resources Center in July, Usrey said there had not been enough time to capture a true "pre-farm" characterization of the river before operators began spreading hog manure on area grasslands. Usrey said that ideally, researchers would have two to three years worth of data before the farm went into operation.

Data from Usrey and the Big Creek research team have shown repeated spikes in E. coli in confluence waters after big rains, and dissolved oxygen levels have occasionally dipped, although the river has maintained healthy levels overall.

In May 2013, Usrey produced an assessment of E. coli in the Buffalo National River from 2009-12 for the National Park Service. In the report's abstract, Usrey wrote that although the vast majority of the 456 samples collected during the four-year reporting period were well below established limits for E. coli, tributaries to the river "posed a higher risk for contracting water-borne illness during recreational activities."

Usrey said his concerns regarding the effect of C&H Hog Farms on the river aren't centered on an imagined catastrophic accident, but on the gradual accumulation of pollutants in Big Creek that will then elevate the level of E. coli in the Buffalo National River every time there is a big rain.

Usrey said he hopes to expand the park's water monitoring and analysis capabilities to match those of the U.S. Geologic Survey, which currently maintains five monitoring stations along the Buffalo National River.

Environmental Quality Department spokesman Katherine Benenati said the park already shares its data with the Environmental Quality Department, as required under Regulation 2, the rule that governs the administration of the federal Clean Water Act in Arkansas.

Reed Green, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Little Rock, is developing a "work plan" for the long-term measurement of dissolved oxygen throughout the Buffalo National River. After an internal review and approval process, Green said he expects to deliver the document to Usrey by Oct. 1.

Of the 20 tributaries to the Buffalo National River that Usrey regularly surveys, three are currently on the Environmental Quality Department's list of impaired streams. Two of the streams -- Bear Creek, near Gilbert, and Big Creek Lower, which is in the Lower Buffalo Wilderness and is not connected to the Big Creek flowing near Mount Judea -- are considered impaired because of low levels of dissolved oxygen.

State Desk on 08/06/2014

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