2 states' river feud clearing up

Phosphorus still high in Illinois, but levels dropping

Once an avid camper and canoeist, Ed Brocksmith no longer visits the Illinois River in east Oklahoma.

These days Brocksmith fishes for smallmouth bass and sand bass at Horseshoe Bend, located on the upper portion of Tenkiller Lake where the Illinois River drains into it. Decades ago, the water was so clear he could step 4 or 5 feet into the lake and still see his feet.

"That's no longer the case," said Brocksmith, 76, a secretary/treasurer with the volunteer group Save the Illinois River.

Brocksmith is concerned that phosphorus levels in the Illinois River will continue to contribute to the degradation of the lake and eventually threaten its bass population. He and others worry the lake eventually will become hospitable only to the "wrong" type of fish, like catfish.

"We want to catch those fish and not mudcats," Brocksmith said.

The level of phosphorus in the Illinois River continues to consistently exceed Oklahoma's state standard of 0.037 milligram of phosphorus per liter, reports show, more than a decade after the state sued Northwest Arkansas poultry companies for contributing the element to the river.

Such levels pose a threat to the well-being of the highly popular river, which each year draws about 500,000 visitors -- including some 200,000 floaters -- who spend an estimated $15 million, according to the Grand River Dam Authority, a branch of Oklahoma's state government.

There are indications things are getting better.

The level of phosphorus is far lower than it used to be, from as high as an average of 0.423 milligram of phosphorus per liter in Watts, Okla., in 1980 to 0.065 milligram of phosphorus per liter in the same spot in 2016. Samples taken this fall from other parts of the river show levels ranging from 0.05 milligram of phosphorus per liter to 0.09, according to Brian Haggard, director of the Arkansas Water Resources Center at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Experts attribute the drop to farmers applying less poultry litter -- which is rich in phosphorus -- to the ground in Northwest Arkansas and industries reducing the amount of phosphorus in their wastewater. The Illinois is one of several rivers across the country that the U.S. Geological Survey identifies with likely improving phosphorus levels.

The lower environmental footprint comes at a time when Northwest Arkansas' population has more than doubled to more than 500,000 people, according to census estimates.

"We're making progress, but we still have a bit to go," said Nicole Hardiman, executive director of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, an Arkansas-based nonprofit formed in 2005 that focuses on voluntary means of reducing phosphorus in the river.


The amount of poultry litter applied to ground in the Illinois River's Northwest Arkansas watershed has dropped significantly at a time when the amount of litter being generated has increased, according to Arkansas Natural Resources Commission data analyzed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In the counties that contain portions of the watershed, the amount of poultry litter applied has dropped 30 percent, from 219,195 tons in 2004 -- the earliest year of data available -- to 154,067 tons in 2016.

Several Arkansas counties in the region are subject to stricter regulation because of the dispute with Oklahoma. In those areas, collectively called the Nutrient Surplus Area, the amount of phosphorus that farmers can apply to land is limited and farmers must create nutrient management plans that detail what is applied. Farmers are not subject to those regulations elsewhere in the state, although the integrating poultry companies with which farmers contract may require a nutrient management plan as a part of their agreement.

The amount of applied poultry litter has decreased by 19 percent statewide and in 36 of the 58 counties that have reported nutrient application during at least a portion of that time period. Two counties -- Lonoke in east-central Arkansas and Jackson in northeast Arkansas -- have reported no application. The amount of applied poultry litter has increased in 20 counties.

Arkansas poultry farmers have been selling more poultry litter to farmers in other states, said Sheri Herron Scott, executive soil scientist for BMPs, a nonprofit that helps coordinate the sales. Since poultry companies started the nonprofit in 2004, more than 1 million tons of litter have been moved out of the watershed, according to Caroline Ahn, a spokesman for Tyson Foods.

"Cooperative efforts between the states of Arkansas and Oklahoma, along with regulatory programs and the efforts of the poultry industry have helped to make substantial improvements," Ahn said in a written response to an interview request.

The amount of phosphorus from the Springdale wastewater utility also has dropped, said Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities. In fiscal 2001-2002, the utility's treated effluent contained on average 8.4 milligrams of phosphorus per liter. In fiscal 2016-2017, it contained 0.24 milligram of phosphorus per liter.

That's the product of cleaner wastewater from industries and millions of dollars spent on improving the utility's treatment processes, Ward said.

The treatment is a five-part process that partially removes nutrients such as phosphorus from the wastewater. Called the Bardenpho process, it involves five tanks -- anaerobic, anoxic, aerobic, anoxic (again) and aerobic (again) -- that mix fluids and ultimately separate out nitrogen.

The Bardenpho process has resulted in a Rogers treatment plant producing one-tenth of the phosphorus produced previously, according to plant manager Todd Beaver. The discharge has less than 0.1 milligram of phosphorus per liter.

Fayetteville's new Nowlin treatment plant also discharges at about that level.

Ward wants to improve the things the region is doing, but he also noted a project in Fayetteville that restored a few hundred feet of stream bank that kept between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of phosphorus from finding its way into the Illinois.

He and others favor smaller projects that can make a big impact, such as stream bank restoration and stormwater management.

"That's how you eat an elephant, too, is one bit at a time," Ward said. "I'm just hopeful people want to try some new things."


Ideas abound for how to continue the improvements such as low-impact development, land conservation, regulatory changes and additional partnerships.

Low-impact development, Hardiman said, would employ ways to prevent dirty stormwater from running directly into storm drains.

Some cities have developed stormwater management plans as a part of Clean Water Act compliance, said Katie Teague, a Washington County extension agent. All will have to adopt them, she said.

Construction permit applicants in Fayetteville are required to manage stormwater in one of six different ways, Teague said. Those include outreach and education, management and prevention of pollution, and control of stormwater runoff.

That has led to pervious pavement at a Whataburger drive-through on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Stormwater from the drive-through travels underneath the pavement and into the soil, rather than running off loaded with fuel and other substances into a storm drain. Storm drains discharge directly into bodies of water.

Stream bank restoration projects and partnerships to complete them also interest different groups.

When stream banks erode, they drop sediment into the stream. In Northwest Arkansas, that sediment often contains phosphorus from years of poultry litter being applied to the ground. So restoring stream banks can prevent the addition of more phosphorus making its way to the river.

A public-private partnership to restore the banks near Savoy, where several Illinois tributaries meet, would make a big difference, Hardiman said. He also would like to find ways to encourage people to put their land into conservation easements and to finance the purchase of land to conserve, perhaps through a millage.

Oklahoma already has a program for land conservation, capturing more than 500 acres at the cost of $1 million to landowners for extended contracts, said Ed Fite, vice president of scenic rivers operations for the Grand River Dam Authority. A recent $500,000 grant will buy more land soon, he said.

Decisions are pending on other actions that could affect the river.

The lawsuit against poultry farmers hasn't had a ruling, nearly eight years after the 50-day trial on it ended.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working with the two states on a total maximum daily load study for several years but has not completed one. It would determine the maximum amount of certain nutrients that can be introduced into a body of water.

The EPA did not make anyone available for an interview for this story.

A joint study committee recommended in December 2016 that the phosphorus limit be reduced further to 0.035 milligram per liter to protect the scenic nature of the river, but Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin have taken no action on the recommendation.

"We are working through the details with Oklahoma to ensure that the findings and recommendations of the independent study are fully implemented," Hutchinson said in a statement issued to the Democrat-Gazette.

Michael McNutt, a spokesman for Fallin, said the Oklahoma Water Resources Board is working on a total maximum daily load study.

Cole Perryman, a spokesman for the board, said it has no plans to change the standard because it is not bound to do so unless the change is outside the range of 0.027 milligram of phosphorus per liter to 0.047 milligram of phosphorus per liter.

For Fite, approval of that standard is one of the three necessary things for improving the river, along with an approved total maximum daily load study and robust partnerships.

Brocksmith has similar desires, but at least he's finally seeing clearer waters near Tenkiller Lake after years of work.

"The last few years the river seems to have improved," he said.

A Section on 01/02/2018