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story.lead_photo.caption FILE PHOTO: RYAN MCGEENEY/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette --07-28-2014-- Faron Usrey, an aquatic ecologist with the Buffalo National River, collects water quality samples from the river at its confluence with Big Creek, a major tributary to the river. - Photo by Ryan McGeeney

The country's first national river is impaired, according to Arkansas environmental regulators.

The Buffalo National River and Big Creek, a nearly 19-mile tributary of the river, are categorized as impaired in part because of pathogens, or disease-causing bacteria, according to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's draft list of impaired water bodies, or waters not meeting state water quality standards, released Thursday.

Only a 14.3-mile segment toward the middle of the 150-mile river is impaired, meaning the amount of pathogens exceeds water-quality standards. The rest of the river is not listed as impaired.

About 15 miles of Big Creek is also categorized as impaired, again because of pathogens, and the final 3.7 miles of the creek before it flows into the Buffalo is listed as impaired because of abnormally low dissolved oxygen levels but not for the presence of pathogens.

The source of the pathogens is unknown, according to the department's report.

In 2017, nearly 1.5 million people visited the Buffalo National River and spent $62.6 million supporting 911 jobs, according to the National Park Service.

The department released its biannual list of impaired waters, also known as the 303(d) list for the section of the federal Clean Water Act that requires it, as a draft Thursday. The agency is accepting public comments through Sept. 10, after which revisions will be considered before it is submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval.

In 2016, conservationists and the National Park Service requested that Mill Creek, Bear Creek and Big Creek all be included on the list because of data collected in 2015. That data showed Mill Creek had elevated E. coli levels and Bear Creek, like Big Creek, had low dissolved oxygen.

The department said at the time that the data did not fit into the two-year "period of record" that ends March 31 of the year before submission to be included on the list.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked the department Thursday why Mill Creek and Bear Creek were not included on the 2018 list.

The department did not grant an interview request but said the newspaper could find answers to questions sent to the department about Buffalo River tributaries and other aspects of the impaired-water-bodies list in the more than 100 pages of documents published on its website. The newspaper was unable to locate information in those pages on deadline about the other tributaries and did not receive a response from the department after stating so.

The department and the U.S. Geological Survey are performing studies -- separate from the 303(d) requirements -- on E. coli in Mill Creek and nutrients and bacteria in the creek's watershed.

A declaration of impairment often means more study and eventually prescriptive actions to improve the stream or lake. Those measures might include pollutant limits, determined by a Total Maximum Daily Load calculation, imposed on farming or other activities believed to be contributing to the impairment.

In the Buffalo's and Big Creek's case, they were placed in the 4b category, meaning they are considered impaired but do not require prescriptive measures because of work already underway. According to the department, that work is the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee and the Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan. The latter is a voluntary guide of recommended measures that would benefit the river and its watershed. The committee meets a couple of times a year to discuss work and issues in the watershed.

On Thursday, some disagreed about what might be behind the impairments to Big Creek and the Buffalo National River.

Environmental groups have long been concerned that C&H Hog Farms -- the watershed's only federally classified large hog farm -- which is on Big Creek 6 miles from where it meets the Buffalo, could pollute the Buffalo River. Many have argued that it already has, based on ongoing studies of the creek.

Agricultural groups have looked at the same studies and argued that they show the farm has not been polluting the watershed.

"While some will no doubt use this declaration to unnecessarily cast a black mark against C&H Hog Farms, it is worth noting the state-sponsored science conducted by the Big Creek Research and Extension Team has never indicated C&H as a source of any environmental problems," Steve Eddington, a spokesman for the Arkansas Farm Bureau wrote in an email to the newspaper. Eddington contended that C&H has employed measures, such as controlling the timing and volume of manure application to its property, to reduce runoff of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus

Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, expressed frustration Thursday with Big Creek and the Buffalo River not being listed as Category 5 impaired bodies, which would have required Total Maximum Daily Load studies and limits set for them.

"The watershed management plan is all voluntary," he said.

The plan, announced in 2016 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and completed earlier this year, also did not address C&H Hog Farms, as Watkins and others wanted, because officials with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission said regulated entities are outside of the scope of such plans.

The watershed management plan did not list Big Creek as a priority stream, which means applications for voluntary watershed management funding on the creek are not prioritized compared with six other streams in the watershed.

Instead of treating Big Creek and the Buffalo like other Category 5 waters, Watkins said, the department is shifting responsibilities for the waters to other government agencies and "small organizations like us."

The 2018 list added hundreds of miles of several waterways, including portions of the Saline River, Ouachita River, Smackover Creek and Little Cornie Creek. It removed fewer waters but well over 100 miles worth of streams and a 1,338-acre portion of Beaver Lake, a recreational and drinking water source for Northwest Arkansas.

Last week, Save the Illinois River Inc. sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency objecting to its approval of the department's 2016 303(d) list, arguing that no change in total phosphorus had been shown to be used to justify the removal of Osage Creek and Spring Creek in the Illinois River's watershed from the Category 5 list.

The EPA argued in its approval of the 2016 list last year that those creeks could be Category 4b because of existing efforts to improve the Illinois River.

Those creeks were not listed as 4b in the 2018 draft, and questions about the creeks and recent steps taken to improve the Illinois River were not answered by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality on Thursday.

A map showing impaired water body.

Metro on 07/27/2018

Print Headline: 14.3-mile section of Buffalo River, Big Creek on state's impaired list


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