WEST SILOAM SPRINGS -- Efforts are underway to put in place new rules officials say are necessary to implement and enforce water quality standards set for Oklahoma's scenic rivers.

Informal stakeholder meetings are expected to take place next spring as the Oklahoma Water Resources Board begins drafting rules in advance of formal procedures required for administrative rulemaking. OWRB officials are gearing up early because they are working in conjunction with representatives from other state agencies here and in Arkansas.

Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner said some factors that could be addressed through rulemaking include criterion necessary to implement the state's phosphorus standard for scenic rivers. He said it is possible there also could be "some sort of (nutrient) trading platform in the future that would be subject to rulemaking."

Those efforts and others are being undertaken by a steering committee created pursuant to a November 2018 agreement struck during the final weeks of Gov. Mary Fallin's second term in office. The deal, backed by officials representing Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, outlines a commitment to address water quality concerns within the Illinois River Basin, which straddles both states.

The 2018 agreement built upon two earlier agreements "intended to avoid costly, protracted litigation and administrative proceedings that would strain relationships between the states." It also is intended to carry out recommendations made by a joint study committee that in December 2016 validated Oklahoma's phosphorus standard for its scenic rivers.

OWRB established the numeric standard to address the degradation of water quality in the Illinois River, which has been a source of contention between the two states for decades and the basis of lawsuits on more than one occasion. Water quality degradation within the watershed has been attributed to nutrient overloading -- particularly phosphorus -- which promotes vegetative growth, depletes dissolved oxygen levels, reduces water quality and threatens aquatic life and habitat.

Bill Cauthron, who oversees OWRB's water quality programs division, said the state's numeric phosphorus standard of 0.037 mg/L set for scenic rivers would remain unchanged by any proposed rules. Proposed rules would address only implementation.

"We are not talking about changing the number obviously, we are just how the number gets implemented into a regulatory framework," Cauthron said. "A lot of the work we are doing in the language is how does that happen, how that gets input in the nonpoint source program, and how you go about assessing whether the beneficial use being met."

That would be accomplished by addressing how often the 0.037 mg/L is measured during a period of time. The present standard sets a 30-day geometric mean.

A geometric mean is similar to an average but calculated differently in order to produce an "unbiased" result that is not "overly influenced by large fluctuations" in the readings.

Cauthron said a recommendation has been made to change the 30-day geometric mean to a six-month rolling average. That recommendation, he said, is still being assessed.

"That wouldn't change what the standard is, we're still working through that, it is just how you go about assessing whether the beneficial use is being met," Cauthron said. "Standards are there to protect the beneficial use, and that is always what we are doing."

Ed Brocksmith, co-founder of Save the Illinois River Inc., said he is pleased there is some movement forward nearly three years after the joint study committee completed its work. He is, however, "suspicious" about the prospect of tinkering with the state's phosphorus standard for the Illinois River through rulemaking.

"I feel optimistic after I go to a meeting like that, everybody is enthusiastic, we're gung-ho, we're going to get it done," Brocksmith said. "But I am dismayed that we've got another study going on and it's going to take another five years -- if they would have done the TMDL, as STIR has reminded the state many times, we wouldn't be dealing with this."

EPA initiated efforts in 2009 to develop limits for pollutants in the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake and was prepared to release total maximum daily loads in 2015. Those efforts were delayed by political and business interests until the joint study was completed but ultimately shelved in 2018.

While the inaugural meeting on Thursday of the steering committee provided no opportunity for public comment, Wagner said there will be opportunities for stakeholder involvement coming up. He said EPA has been coordinating what he described as "the Illinois River workgroup," which meets weekly to discuss topics that will be taken up by the steering committee during its public meetings.

D.E. Smoot writes for the Muskogee Phoenix.

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