Illinois River watershed committee holds first meeting, eyes water quality credit program

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The Illinois River in Adair County. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier
An interstate committee looking to improve water quality in the Illinois River watershed met publicly for the first time on Thursday.

The Illinois River Watershed Steering Committee’s first public meeting, held at the Cherokee Nation Casino in West Siloam Springs, allowed the committee’s members and the public to hear updates on how implementation of the agreement signed by Oklahoma and Arkansas last November is progressing, what issues still need worked out and what ideas for water quality improvement are on the table.

The steering committee consists of Kenneth Wagner, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment; Becky Keogh, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality; Blayne Arthur, director of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry; Wes Ward, Arkansas secretary of agriculture; and Chad Harsha, secretary of natural resources for the Cherokee Nation.

The meeting came nearly a year after Oklahoma and Arkansas signed an agreement in which Arkansas recognized Oklahoma’s .037 milligrams per-liter limit on phosphorus for designated scenic rivers, such as the Illinois River, as well as provisions to hammer out a regulatory framework to help achieve the .037 mg/L limit, and begin implementing a watershed improvement plan within four years. In addition to other requirements and goals, the states also agreed not to sue or take administrative enforcement action against each other.

For years, Oklahoma and Arkansas have been at odds on the water quality of the Illinois River, which flows from Arkansas into Oklahoma. Phosphorus from poultry farm chicken litter and land application, municipal wastewater discharges and other sources in Arkansas have caused water in the river flowing into Oklahoma to regularly exceed the state’s .037 mg/L phosphorus limit. Phosphorus facilitates the growth of algae, which in excessive amounts can harm fish and other animals.

“The .037 level, which was (established) a decade ago now, was a source of litigation between the states,” said Robert Blanz, associate director for ADEQ’s office of water quality. “Much to our chagrin, I guess, Arkansas is finding that the .037 is a good number.”

During Thursday’s meeting, the public and committee members were updated on what both states’ water quality agencies were doing to come up with a set of workable regulations to reduce the phosphorus levels in the Illinois River watershed, what the historical and current measurements of phosphorus are, how those measurements are taken, and how stakeholders will be able to submit ideas to improve water quality to the committee.

Though the next public meeting of the committee likely won’t take place until June, Oklahoma Water Resources Board officials and their counterparts in Arkansas will be meeting over the next few months to come up with technical and guidance documents to achieve the water quality standards, said Bill Cauthron, head of OWRB’s water quality division.

“We wanted to introduce ourselves and let people know there are things going on and there are significant opportunities coming to engage,” Wagner said after the meeting. “I thought we accomplished those two things.”

Members of the Illinois River Watershed Steering Committee. From left to right: Kenneth Wagner, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment; Becky Keogh, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality; Chad Harsha, secretary of natural resources for the Cherokee Nation; Blayne Arthur, director of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry; Wes Ward, Arkansas secretary of agriculture. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

The committee is also considering non-regulatory options that may be included in the watershed improvement plan.

One of those options discussed during the meeting was a marketplace that would allow companies and farms in the watershed to purchase, bank and sell water quality credits, similar to the more widespread carbon credits to offset carbon dioxide emissions.

“What we’re looking for in this agreement is not just regulation,” Keogh said. “What I do want to do is make sure these non-regulatory approaches achieve the focus or result we’re targeting.”

Keogh and Wagner said both states have been considering such a move, and the EPA is also examining the issue.

A program like that could incentivize farmers to implement measures to prevent runoff or stream bank erosion, Wagner said.

“Programs like water quality trading where a farmer can be paid from a private source for those improvements have real opportunities to make an incentive for them to implement these best practices,” he said.

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Ed Brocksmith, co-founder of Save the Illinois River and former chairman of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission said a much faster route to achieving better water quality would be doing a Total Maximum Daily Load study under the Clean Water Act, which would determine the amount of a pollutant a body of water can receive and the proportion of pollutants in the water because of dischargers (such as municipal wastewater plants) or non-point sources (such as runoff from smaller agricultural operations or parking lots) and set regulatory limits.

“They’ve got their work cut out for them, no doubt,” Brocksmith said. “And it’s going to be very, very difficult because of the issue with non-point source pollution — animal waste, septic tanks, the poultry industry, cattle ranching, runoff from parking lots. These are things that are difficult to quantify. They talk about nutrient trade. How are you going to measure the effectiveness of trading municipal wastewater treatment permits against the reduction of non-point sources? They definitely have their work cut out for them.”

Wagner disagreed, saying that a TMDL would result in protracted litigation, since Oklahoma would not be able to enforce its standards across state lines.

“If it was as easy as passing a reg and water quality would magically adhere to that reg, we would have already done it,” Wagner said. “TMDLs oftentimes result in litigation because we’re promulgating standards on this side of the line that we’re going to enforce, but we have not enforcement authority across state lines.”

Brocksmith said Arkansas’ acknowledgement of Oklahoma’s .037 mg/L phosphorus limit was a huge step forward in a fight that has lasted for years, but that he hoped the agreement between the two states did not result in another study that yields little or no improvement in water quality.

“Oklahoma and Arkansas have been kicking this can down the river since 2002 at least, when the phosphorus limit was adopted,” Brocksmith said. “I sincerely hope it is not just another study and that in our lifetimes we will see the Illinois River fully protected and crystal clear again, and Lake Tenkiller protected.”

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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