By TEDDYE SNELL
OKLAHOMA CITY —
Attorney General Scott Pruitt Wednesday announced an agreement between Oklahoma and Arkansas to study the water quality of the Illinois River.
The agreement comes after months of negotiation among the attorneys general, Arkansas environmental officials, Oklahoma Environmental Secretary Gary Sherrer and Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese on limits for phosphorus in the section of the river that travels through 100 miles of eastern Oklahoma.
The Statement of Joint Principles with Arkansas provides for a new “best science” study of the phosphorus load for the river with both states, for the first time, agreeing to be bound by the outcome. The new study will take three years, and could result in a standard stricter than the current requirement. Oklahoma’s .037 milligrams per liter phosphorous standard will remain in effect while the new study is conducted.
Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, members of Save The Illinois River Inc. were concerned stakeholders had not been informed about the potential agreement. Representatives of STIR met with Pruitt on Tuesday to learn more.
“Well, STIR was concerned about the lack of communication, but after our representatives met with the attorney general, we’re relieved the .037 standard will remain in effect,” said Denise Deason-Toyne, STIR president.
The new study is estimated to cost $600,000 and will be funded by Arkansas and managed by the Joint Study Committee. The committee will consist of six members with the governors of Oklahoma and Arkansas appointing three members each. According to the agreement, the joint study will be conducted by a third party group with no ties to businesses in either state.
Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission Administrator Ed Fite, who was a signatory on the agreement, said the measure shows the states are willing to work together for the protection of the watershed.
“This is the firs enforceable agreement [we’ve had], and it continues to show that Arkansas and Oklahoma are willing to work together,” said Fite. “None of the parties to previous agreements have clean hands, including the EPA, Oklahoma and Arkansas, so we have to work together. If we don’t, it harms the river.”
While the Gov. Mary Fallin will appoint three of the six members of the committee, Fite said he believes she will likely choose those with scientific credentials and a background in water resource management.
“It’s up to the governor to appoint, but they will most likely consist of leaders from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s water quality division, and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission,” said Fite. “I think they will be who she will consider.”
The study, known as a stressor response study, will be conducted using EPA-approved testing methods that ensure scientifically reliable data collection and analysis.
“Generations of Oklahomans have enjoyed the Illinois River for hunting, fishing, camping and floating, and their safety and enjoyment of the river is paramount,” Pruitt said. “This agreement ensures that the progress we’ve made will continue, and that the river remains a recreation destination for future generations.”
The committee will produce two interim reports, and make public the final report and all data collected or reviewed during the joint study.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is conducting a Total Maximum Daily Load study for the Illinois River that will set the discharge permit limits for all point source dischargers in the watershed. The EPA study is ongoing.