By TEDDYE SNELL
If Ed Fite had to pinpoint a moment when rivers sparked his interest, it would be a five-week trip to summer camp in Branson, Mo.
The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission administrator, who celebrated his 30th year as the agency head Nov. 15, remembers distinctly that first long-term encounter.
“I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember being just a little boy,” said Fite. “My parents dropped me off at the bus station in Tulsa near the old Sears store at 21st and Yale, and I went to Kanakuk Camp on the Taneycomo River at Branson for five weeks.”
Fite recalls staying in the first of 18 cabins, and being homesick until activities got into full swing.
“We got three square meals a day – no soda pop, no candy,” said Fite. “We had lots and lots of outdoor activities, many involving water recreation on the river.”
Fite, who grew up in Muskogee, also spent many weekends in the summer and fall at his grandparents homestead: Swannanoa, on the Illinois River near Tahlequah.
“My parents always floated out of Peyton’s Place, and I remember floating with Dr. Ted Hines and his son, Craig, out of Hanging Rock when I was little,” Fite said.
Fite’s father also had a houseboat on Eufaula Lake. Prolonged encounters with a curious man on that boat fostered Fite’s interest in water quality issues.
“There was always a man on the boat when we went down to visit,” said Fite.
“I remember he taught me to sit on the back of the boat and fish for carp using Nehi Grapette and wieners and doughballs. This man, his name was Lacey Grimes, was having trouble with cancer. Well, he spent time with me and my brothers and was always talking about Congressman Ed Edmondson and what he did for water quality.”
Fite said his father would often leave him with Grimes, so Fite had no choice but to sit and listen to the stories the old fisherman would tell.
“I didn’t dawn on me until much later - when I was a teenager or later - that Lacey was chief of staff for Edmondson. I learned a lot from those experiences on the boat.”
“Rivers just kind of took hold of me”
Fite always had a soft spot for rivers, formed by those encounters and also through crossing the Mississippi River by ferry to visit his mother’s hometown of Clarksdale, Miss.
“I remember just staring at the big Mississippi, and being fascinated,” said Fite. “When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I build a secondary water treatment plant for the science fair and won, which sent me on to regionals. Who would’ve guessed those things would turn into a lifelong career? Rivers just kind of took hold of me.”
Fite came to the OSRC in August 1983 on a voluntary basis when John Shannon was still administrator, running out his leave and benefits.
“I was named the fourth administrator, and the other three served a total of six years combined,” said Fite.
“It appeared, at that time, the OSRC was to be short-lived. There was no continuity to the agency; we had several float operators who had pending lawsuits against the OSRC.
There was a lot of controversy among the board members about whether the river should fall under state control or local control. There was no harmony like there is today.”
In fact, in 1981, Northeastern State University held a symposium on the Illinois River, which produced a white paper calling the OSRC “a colossal failure.”
“I was immediately thrust into all these moving parts,” said Fite.
“Everyone wanted to protect the river, but they have very different ideas about how to get it done.”
Throughout his first decade, Fite found himself amid talks with the city of Fayetteville, which wanted to discharge waste from its newly built wastewater plant into the Illinois River.
He was also working to prevent the city of Tahlequah from increasing its discharge into the scenic river after upgrading its existing water treatment plant.
“I spent my first 10 years in constant legal battles,” said Fite. “It wasn’t until February 1992 that things started lining out.”
During that time, Fite, along with legislators, other state officials and members of Save The Illinois River Inc., worked tirelessly to prevent Arkansas from increasing the amount of waste dumped into the river.
“From 1983 to 1987, we worked with the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrative process to get it stopped,” said Fite. At that level, we lost. So, we appealed to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and went to court in March 1990.”
The battle wends its way through court
Fite said Oklahoma and Arkansas were to be allowed equal time, but after presenting Oklahoma’s case, the three justices asked so many questions, the Oklahoma side had far more time to make its case.
“It had the Arkansas folks really frustrated,” said Fite. “When the justices ask a question, the time clock stops.”
In July, the court ruled in favor of Oklahoma, but it didn’t order the discharge to cease.
“So we appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Fite. “In December 1991, we appeared before the court, but it was a much different situation. The justices immediately went on the offensive.”
Oklahoma lost its case, but Fite said they gained ground in one respect.
“The water quality standard for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act had to be met at the state line, but the burden of proof was on us,” said Fite. “At that time, we only had a narrative definition of water quality; we lacked a numeric value. Today, we have the .037 limit.”
Fite has been happy to serve in a job he loves.
“I didn’t have any training; I just had a passion for the river,” said Fite. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and made a lot of enemies. But I’ve also made a lot of good friends. I just happened to be the bobblehead to represent everyone who loves this river.”
Fite pointed out that he plans to be around for at least another decade, and that protection is a never-ending pursuit.
“We are never going to get to the point where we can say we’ve finished our work,” said Fite. “Protection has no endpoint. There is going to be another Ed Fite. I’ve got about 10 more years, because I want to go out sharp.”
Fite said agency funding will be crucial over the next decade.
“Natural resource agencies are as important as any other, but invariably get the smallest slice of the apportionment pie,” he said. “They are also the first to be called upon when it comes time to cut the budget. The Legislature has cut what was a $383,000 per year budget to $271,000 this year.”
Fite has an long and notable list of co-workers, including several Oklahoma governors, attorneys general, congressmen, senators, representatives, as well as clean water advocates, several of whom are responsible for the creation and success of STIR. He also credits his board members and staff for the success of the OSRC.
“I’m just thankful the people of the state have tolerated me and allowed me to do a job I love,” he said.