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An increase in water flow has caused phosphorous concentrations in the Illinois River watershed to rise, according to a state natural resources official.

For decades, the phosphorous concentration in the Illinois River and its tributaries has been declining, but the five-year average for 2013-17 rose in at least four bodies of water, according to a report presented to state officials in September.

Overall there’s still a major decline in phosphorous concentrations in water, although the amounts remain above what Oklahoma considered the maximum allowed, said Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

What’s different about recent years is that the water flow is faster, Benefield said, which means the water carries in more sediment through runoff and stream-bank erosion of soil contaminated with “legacy” phosphorus. “Legacy” means the phosphorus remains from a past land use.

Increased rainfall has increased river flows, Benefield said.

Rainfall in Fayetteville has been higher in recent years after nearly a decade of average precipitation, said Nicole McGavock, a hydrologist and meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tulsa. Before that, precipitation fluctuated between higher and lower than average.

Flow in certain creeks has increased since 1981. The worst phosphorous-loading occurred in the middle of the first decades of the 2000s. While changes in phosphorous-loading correlate with changes in water flow, changes in phosphorous concentrations generally don’t.

During drought-plagued 2012, Benefield noted, when water flow was much lower, the phosphorous concentration was 0.070 milligrams per liter in the Illinois River south of Siloam Springs. In 2017, when there was higher water flow, the concentration was 0.043 milligrams per liter.

Phosphorous-loading increased in Flint Creek, Sager Creek and part of the Illinois River, according to the report, which was compiled through 2017. Phosphorous loading went down in Baron Fork.

In Flint Creek, loading rose from an average of 1,761 kilograms per year from 2012-16 to 1,946 kilograms per year from 2013-17. That change was 3,789 kilograms to 5,083 kilograms in Sager Creek and 33,473 kilograms to 45,502 kilograms in the Illinois River south of Siloam Springs. Loading in Baron Creek dropped from an average of 1,276 kilograms per year from 2012-016 to an average of 1,193 kilograms per year from 2013-17.

Those aren’t the first times phosphorous-loading has increased in those spots.

The 2017 phosphorous concentration in Sager Creek was 0.473 milligrams per liter, down from 2.125 milligrams per liter in 1981.

The lowest concentrations were in Baron Creek. The 2017 phosphorous concentration was 0.039 milligrams per liter, down from 0.135 milligrams per liter in 1981.

Data for Flint Creek were not available.

The standard in Oklahoma, at Watts where the Illinois River crosses the state line, is 0.037 milligrams of phosphorus per liter.

Ed Brocksmith, a founder of Save the Illinois River in Tahlequah, Okla., said he believes rainfall was the culprit for the phosphorous concentrations increasing. But he is concerned about the growth of poultry facilities in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma, where much of the river’s watershed is located, he said.

“We’re going to see more poultry waste reported,” he said. “That’s one of the things we’d like to know is where it is going.”

Brocksmith has campaigned for a Total Maximum Daily Load Study on the Illinois River and its tributaries, which at some point could trigger stricter requirements for discharge permits into those waterways.

In October, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 Administrator Anne Idsal said in a speech at the Arkansas Environmental Federation’s annual conference that the agency was leaving a total maximum daily load study on the table but was not pursuing it as a solution to the Illinois River’s problems.

Idsal said she was confident that the parties involved in continuing negotiations — representatives of the EPA, Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation — would reach a solution to improve the waterways.

On Wednesday, Oklahoma and Arkansas signed an agreement to maintain Oklahoma’s standard of phosphorus in its scenic waters at 0.037 milligrams per liter, after a Baylor University and committee study recommended a 0.035 milligrams per liter concentration. The agreement lowered the limit of what wastewater plants can discharge into the watershed but kept the level above what previous wastewater plants were required to meet.

Nicole Hardimann, executive director of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, said she is unsure why phosphorous concentrations had increased but she is proud of the progress made so far in reducing phosphorous concentrations since the 1980s.

“These reports are so important over time to see where the trend is headed,” she said.

The state is still below the 40 percent phosphorous reduction goal, Benefield said.

“In each of these cases, all of our overall trends are still very good.”


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Archived Comments

  • jeffieboy
    November 19, 2018 at 8:55 a.m.

    The problem with phosphorus in rivers is not "legacy" phosphorus from previous land use nor do poultry farms that currently and for many years have not land applied any litter have anything to do with it. The answer is easy to find.

    A simple review of official Storm Water discharge reports filed with ADEQ provides the answer. A single significant rainfall event in the Northwest Arkansas "metropolis" washes more phosphorus, biological oxygen demand, oil and grease, sediment and trash into local rivers and streams through the storm water system than all agricultural operations in the entire region combined over time.

    Things like leaking dumpsters behind restaurants to meat and poultry processing plants, to manufacturing facilities, feed mills, city streets and roads, parking lots, and Scotts fertilizer manicured lawns among several other factors are the real culprits.

    It's not the farms. Farms are simply an easy target compared to dealing with the actual problem. Go to the ADEQ website and read the data. The true source is clear.

  • jeffieboy
    November 19, 2018 at 9:11 a.m.

    Nobody meets the standards in any of these permits to my knowledge. Every sample I ever grabbed was way over allowable levels and there is no enforcement activity on the part of ADEQ or anyone.

    When problems are discovered it is almost impossible to pin down who is the actual violator as referenced in the following report. This situation is common. The co-mingling of sources of storm water runoff makes it nearly impossible to determine individual fault. Regardless, the cumulative effects of urban areas are the real problem.

  • Jfish
    November 19, 2018 at 11:38 a.m.

    Jeffie, some of your statements regarding agriculture are way too broad and not accurate as a quick google search on the Illinois River and phosphorus will point out. However, I do agree with a lot of what you said, everyone including cities should be held to the same standards. I often wonder if people who pay for these lawn services have any idea what is in those large tanks on the back of the Scotts, Chemlawn, etc. trucks. In regard to ADEQ enforcement, I am sure the agency tries but I would guess in many instances their hands are tied by someone in a prominent position who does not want to limit urban growth (more tax base) or regulate agriculture (the most powerful lobby in Arkansas). We are seeing a similar situation play out in Florida.

  • jeffieboy
    November 19, 2018 at 12:17 p.m.

    JFISH...until I retired I was an EHS professional here in NWA for 19 years. I have personally conducted hundreds of samples in many urban and rural locations. I also reported over limits to ADEQ for all urban locations I was responsible to report. Exceeding standards in urban areas is routine. I have never seen ADEQ sanction anyone for exceeding storm water limits. I had three in the local area that exceeded limits by hundreds of percent routinely. ADEQ is happy if you simply tell them you'll try harder and "sweep the lot" more often. I was also responsible for nutrient management plans on thousands of acres of rural farmlands and pastures in NWA. I was involved in and am very familiar with the Illinois River study, Drew Edmonds and his shenanigans, and the consensus reached by various special interest groups. It is important to remember that consensus isn't necessarily science. It is often simply agenda driven opinion. With regards to what is most responsible for pollution of our waters, the consensus that it has something to do with agricultural activity is just that. A mythological opinion. It is a consensus based on fear, feelings, and wild predictions that are not supported by scientific facts or objective observations.

  • jeffieboy
    November 19, 2018 at 12:29 p.m.

    Note: Google is the last place you need to look if you want accurate data. That is why I provided official government reports (submitted by professionals as true and accurate under penalty of law) that is proofed data as opposed to a bunch of links to comments and opinions of whoever wants to jump in regardless of their lack of qualification and knowledge of the subject.

  • Jfish
    November 19, 2018 at 1:15 p.m.

    I won't argue exact percentages of sources with you as you obviously have a lot of experience with this issue and I don't have time today to look at all the citations and funding sources for the studies. However, you will have a difficult time convincing me that poultry waste does not fit into the equation somewhere just based on the numbers (tons that were land applied and reported by USDA). Over the next few days, I will check out your ADEQ references.