The major water supplier for Northwest Arkansas says a proposed regulation to protect the state's water quality is not detailed enough to be effective.
The Northwest Arkansas Nutrient Trading Research and Advisory Group -- which consists of officials from Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale -- is tasked by the state Legislature to work on a proposal to deal with state water nutrient levels.
Members of the group must agree on a proposed regulation before it can be sent for state review.
The Legislature selected those four Northwest Arkansas cities to work on the proposal because they have the most experience in dealing with water nutrient issues, said Jene Huffman-Gilreath, Rogers' representative in the group.
"This all goes back to the situation with Oklahoma," she said. Oklahoma once proposed a nutrient discharge level on the Illinois River that was so low that it led to a federal lawsuit. The Illinois River drains from Arkansas into Oklahoma. The states later came to an agreement to lower nutrient levels, such as phosphorus. The federal lawsuit was never resolved.
Objections to the proposed regulation begin with the definition of a watershed.
Lane Crider, chief executive officer of the Beaver Water District, said the regulation as originally proposed considered the entire state a single watershed.
"We're all in the Mississippi River watershed," he said.
The proposal would allow wastewater treatment plant operators to enter cooperative "nutrient trading" agreements with other operators in the same watershed.
A treatment plant in Beaver Lake's White River watershed could make a deal with another anywhere in the state regardless of whether it helps either region's water quality, he said.
The group writing the regulation has agreed to narrow the definition of "watershed," said Bradley Stewart, group chairman.
But other disagreements remain and threaten to derail the initiative.
Requests involving measurements, monitoring and enforcement require a level of detail and certainty that doesn't exist, Stewart said Friday.
The regulation would let operators of wastewater treatment plants engage in "nutrient trading." Some plants already remove more nutrients -- such as phosphorus and nitrogen -- from their discharges than is required under a plant's state-issued permit.
If the nutrient trading regulation is approved, then a plant operator will be allowed to let another treatment plant in the same watershed use what the operator didn't use in return for payments or something else of value.
Most people in Northwest Arkansas get their drinking water from Beaver Lake.
The Beaver Water District presented a 15-page rewrite of the proposed six-page regulation at the Aug. 16 meeting of the regulation-writing group.
The group is to consider the water district's requested changes during a meeting Thursday.
Whatever draft regulation the advisory group comes up with would require review by the state Division of Environmental Quality and, beyond that, final approval from the state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.
Fayetteville is not likely to support a regulation that does not adopt much of the water district's proposals, said Teresa Turk, a Fayetteville City Council member. She said she wouldn't recommend the advisory group's version of the regulation to the full City Council in her city.
The core problem with the proposed regulation is that it concerns only wastewater treatment plants -- public and private, Crider said. There are far more sources of nutrients in watersheds than those, and Northwest Arkansas treatment plants have already made progress in reducing the nutrients they release, he said.
Local-level projects such as stopping stream bank erosion, fencing off sections of a river to prevent cattle from entering and leaving their waste in the water, and working with real estate developers to reduce or slow runoff would do far more to reduce nutrients and improve water quality than would expensive efforts to make many wastewater plants more efficient, he said.
A wastewater utility reimbursing landowners to make changes locally would do more to help water quality, he said.
"There is only so much more blood you can squeeze out of that turnip," Crider said of continued attempts to reduce nutrients emitted from wastewater treatments plants.
There is also concern about how to test whether nutrient trading has the desired effect. Such monitoring and testing would be, by far, the most expensive action requested in the Beaver Water District's proposed changes to the regulation, Huffman-Gilreath said.
Neither Crider nor Huffman-Gilreath had an estimate of how much such monitoring would cost.
"You have to have trust at some point," Huffman-Gilreath said at the advisory group's Aug. 16 meeting, a point she repeated Thursday. Trust is needed to believe that the nutrient trading process will improve over time, she said.
There is no substitute for some real-world experience of how a nutrient trading program works, she said. And there is no way to get that experience without a regulation that allows some first-step compromises. The process can be refined in light of that experience, she said.
Turk, though, said in an interview later that there is no substitute for measurements to determine whether a program is doing any good.
The problem is not so much a lack of trust as a lack of means, Crider said.
Crider said the state Division of Environmental Quality simply does not have the resources to fully handle the mission it has already. He pointed to wastewater treatment issues with state permits in Bethel Heights, West Fork and other communities just in Northwest Arkansas.
"If we have an algae bloom and have to issue a 'do not drink' order, that affects half a million people," Crider told the advisory group.
Huffman-Gilreath also noted that monitoring of nonpoint efforts would require more manpower.
"Someone has to make sure the cattle are not on the wrong side of the fence," she said. "Someone has to make sure the stream bank erosion was stopped, and the bank was not washed away by the last storm."
The fact that the regulation would affect the entire state is another factor to consider, Stewart said.
"Our philosophy is that there is no 'one size fits all' regulation for all the ecosystems in the state," he said. "There has to be some flexibility."
One big problem is that the regulation as written seeks to maintain water quality statewide, while the real goal should be to improve it, Turk said.
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