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David Mueller, water quality specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey, displays photos of water with and without algae problems during the Cherokee Nation’s educational symposium on water Thursday. Photo by Betty Ridge

For years, those who use eastern Oklahoma waterways have complained that the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller aren’t as clear as they used to be.

Residents of cities throughout Oklahoma note their water doesn’t taste or smell the way it should.

People with private water wells are forced to discontinue using them because of contamination from nearby livestock operations.

All these issues are frustrating, and water quality experts gave people attending an educational symposium sponsored by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma plenty to think about as the two-day conference opened Tuesday.

“We have a legacy of land management that was made with a different priority,” said Phillip Moershel, of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Water Quality Standards Section. “If we want this goal of having a scenic river, a pristine river for Oklahoma, we’ve got to remanage that.”

Moershel spoke in reply to a comment by Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, that the Illinois River watershed is topsy-turvy when compared to other watersheds.

Instead of water flowing from pristine, natural countryside into a large city, the watershed begins in a concentration of 500,000 people in rapidly-expanding northwest Arkansas. This river flows into an area that long has been a haven for floaters, sportsmen and nature lovers.

Moershel and David Mueller, water quality specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey, explained how water quality is monitored and the ongoing efforts to set standards for water. They said the process has been under way since the late 1950s and is not yet complete.

“Nationwide, we’re not there. Oklahoma, we’re part of the way there,” Moershel said.

He explained Oklahoma was the first region to put out a plan for nutrient criteria in state waters. However, it has not implemented the plan.

Mueller talked of nutrients and their effects on water. For those unfamiliar with the issue, “nutrients” refers to the elements of fertilizer – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The latter does not usually pose a problem. Nitrogen is easily dissolved in water and runs off from the land into the streams. Phosphorus presents more of a dilemma.

“Phosphorus sticks around, and that’s one of the things we need to look at,” Mueller said.

Much of the phosphorus gets into the watershed through groundwater, which may have been accumulating for several years or may be fairly recent.

“Beginning sometime in the 1980s, the clarity of the water quality in Tenkiller Lake and the Illinois River began getting noticeably worse,” Mueller said.

This turbidity, or lack of clarity, was caused by sediment, but also by algae in the water.

That scummy green growth was precipitated by the increased amount of fertilizer, especially phosphorus, making its way into the system. The phosphorus precipitates algae growth, and bacteria also gets carried into the lake, he said.

“Plants need more nitrogen than phosphorus; it goes the same for algae as for your lawn,” he said.

When the algae growth “goes crazy,” scum develops on top of the body of water. As it dies it sinks to the bottom, and the decay causes it to use up oxygen. The oxygen near the bottom of lakes can be depleted to nearly zero, Mueller said. During the summer, fish retreat to the cooler water at lower levels, and find the oxygen they need is gone.

“In a lot of cases, you can get fish kills,” Mueller said.

The depleted oxygen also can produce chemicals that contribute to bad smell and taste in the water.

“If you can control the phosphorus concentrations, you can control the algae growth,” Mueller said.

He showed a map depicting the largest sources of nutrients in the Illinois River watershed — Springdale, Rogers and Siloam Springs, Ark., with Fayetteville following them. These are point sources, where discharge is treated, comes from a plant and is more controllable and testable.

Nonpoint sources, from sources ranging from chicken manure spread on fields to septic systems, comprise the majority of nutrients entering the watershed and are more difficult to measure.   

Recent advances in sewage treatment plants in northwest Arkansas have made them less a factor in the watershed’s woes, Mueller said.

He briefly touched on management by individual property owners, by allowing riparian zones, or buffer strips, of trees and other plants along a waterway. They can be effective in decreasing the concentration of phosphorus reaching the water.

A study of the Illinois River between 1997 and 2001 showed 15 percent of its nutrient load came from poultry litter application, 35 percent from point sources (sewage plant discharge) and 50 percent other nonpoint sources. However, the improved sewer plants have increased the amount of nonpoint sources, Mueller said.

He said phosphorus concentrations, which have been increasing since 1997, typically exceed the Oklahoma standard. Bacteria counts also sometimes exceed state standards.

Moershel said Oklahoma’s plans for setting water standards has these priorities, in this order:

• Scenic rivers.

• Lakes that are considered sensitive because they provide drinking water.

• Streams.

• Other wetlands.

“Folks shouldn’t have to deal with or pay for treating waste that comes from upstream,” he said.

Lakes Eucha, Spavinaw and Thunderbird supply water to a large number of citizens and have the greatest problems with taste and odor problems in Oklahoma, he said.

In this area, Lake Tenkiller provides problems with chlorophyll, and officials are trying to determine the relationship between the nutrient content and the chlorophyll.

Among the projects under way are development of nutrient criteria for Fort Gibson Lake and a review of the scenic rivers criteria by 2012.

“Right now nutrient criteria development is in a flux nationwide. The rules are changing,” Moershel said.

He said the EPA has postponed the dates for the criteria several times. One of the greatest challenges in determining water standards and in achieving those standards is funding, he said.

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