Tahlequah Daily Press

August 23, 2013

New water study may be good news


TAHLEQUAH — It’s been a long time in coming, but folks concerned with the water quality of the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller may have reason to hope.

Most long-time Cherokee County residents remember the pristine condition of both the river and lake during the ‘60s, and even the ‘70s. The decline into murkiness began in the late ‘70s, and continued through the ‘80s. The blame can be placed on a combination of factors: overuse by recreationists, nursery and agriculture runoff, and lax regulations that allowed Arkansas to add its own pollutants to the mix.

Thanks to the efforts of members of Save The Illinois River, and the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, the situation has gradually begun to turn around. Denise Deason-Toyne, president of STIR, points out the water quality has improved in the watershed. She attributes Oklahoma’s pivotal lawsuit against the poultry industry as a key factor, and adds that paradoxically, drought conditions over the past few years have also helped, since there’s been less runoff from farms and cities.

Ed Fite, OSRC administrator, says a six-team scientific oversight committee will further augment ongoing efforts to preserve the river and lake. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin chose three of the members, while Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe picked the other three. The two states seem to be cooperating now, which is a marked turnaround from the often-antagonistic relationship they’ve had under previous leaders.

The group will meet for the first time Aug. 28, kicking off a site-specific study of the river. A critical element is that both states will have to adhere to the sampling processes. And according to Fite, the panel will determine at what point “nuisance” algae begins growing in the Illinois River and its tributaries.

The so-called “Second Statement of Joint Principles” will maintain the Total Maximum Daily Load phosphorus standard of .037 parts per mission per liter. And if the new study finds the algae grows at .48 or higher, Oklahoma will ultimately adjust the water quality standard. Should that tipping point register at .026 or lower, the standard will be adjusted downward.

For those who glaze over when confronted with scientific data and difficult-to-decipher figures, all they need to know is that this seems to be good news. There’s always hope when the two states can come to the table in a way that avoids costly litigation, while making a potentially positive impact on the watershed.

Whatever the eventual outcome, area residents owe much to STIR –its founding members and those who have kept the flame burning – and Fite. They’ve persevered through some very difficult times, and they haven’t given up. We look for them to continue their work.