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The first proposed outline to trade nutrients through a watershed has been approved to take to Arkansas' pollution control board nearly three years after the state Legislature voted to allow the proposals.

Four Northwest Arkansas cities -- Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale -- proposed the program, which could be used by wastewater treatment plants in the nutrient-beleaguered area to lessen the restrictions on the amount of phosphorus that they discharge into the water, all while another facility in the same watershed has its restrictions tightened.

Too many nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can cause algae to grow and harm fish.

Arkansas has narrative nutrient standards for water bodies, not specific measurements, but discharge permit holders are subject to nutrient limits.

In Northwest Arkansas, cities and poultry farmers have been forced to be extra cognizant of their phosphorus contributions since Oklahoma sued poultry companies in 2005 over their contribution to phosphorus levels in the Illinois River. Oklahoma has a numeric standard for phosphorus in the river, which receives water from Arkansas.

Allan Gates, an attorney for the four cities known as the Northwest Arkansas Nutrient Trading Research and Advisory Group, said he would try to get the proposal initiated for approval in state regulations by January. It would go before the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission and then would require legislative and gubernatorial approval.

In October, the cities submitted their proposal to the state's Nutrient Water Quality Trading Advisory Panel. Panel members raised concerns about the vagueness of the language, including a reference to the "evidence" that the trade would not negatively impact water quality. So the panel postponed a vote until Dec. 14, when it was unanimously approved with three amendments.

Nicole Hardiman, a panel member and executive director of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, said the proposal's language remained more vague than she wanted but she said after the vote that it would be a good start toward getting the nutrient trading program up and running.

"I am, as a conservationist, concerned that we are maybe making it too flexible," she said. But she said she understood that flexibility could attract more participants and help officials determine the efficacy of trading on improving water quality.

"If we can do a pilot project here, then perhaps we can do others across the state," Hardiman said.

Panel chairman and Springdale Water Utilities Director Heath Ward did not vote on the proposal, but his utility has been interested in trading as a means of further reducing phosphorus contributions in the Illinois River. Springdale Water Utilities and nearby factories have already spent millions of dollars drastically reducing phosphorus discharges because the Illinois River still has too much of the nutrient in it.

"We've moved that needle one more notch, and to me that's important," Ward said.

Three amendments to the proposal expanded on the nutrient trading plan's requirements.

John Bailey, a panel member who works at Arkansas Farm Bureau, presented an amendment that specified the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission because that would determine compliance for certain trades.

The other two approved amendments came from panel member Larry Lloyd, who works for Beaver Water District. Lloyd asked that the proposal require evidence that the trade will not adversely affect a public drinking water source. He also asked that it require trades to take place within a single watershed when the watershed includes a public drinking water source.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, business groups and some conservation-minded nonprofits have touted the potential of nutrient trading programs to improve water quality and help permit holders meet regulatory limits.

Some opposition to trading programs has emerged elsewhere.

In 2015, the environmental group Food and Water Watch issued a report on nutrient trading that said it allows "previously accountable pollution dischargers to hide behind pollution credits and discharge without any real limits."

The group also expressed concern that the pollution levels of farms were "unverified and uncertain."

Food and Water Watch and another environmental group, Friends of the Earth, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 over allowing nutrient trading in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The suit was dismissed for a lack of standing.

Metro on 12/17/2017

Print Headline: Nutrient proposal advances

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