President Joe Biden's commitment to tackling environmental issues and addressing climate change has local water quality advocates "cautiously optimistic" that his administration will take steps to improve the quality of the Illinois River Watershed.
On the first day of his presidency, Biden he signed the Executive Order Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis. This revoked the permit granted by President Donald Trump to allow construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Denise Deason Toyne, president of Save the Illinois River Inc., said that was a good start.
"He's kind of hit the ground running with shutting down the pipeline, which has a lot of people fired up, but that's because they're ignorant as to the fact that it's not our oil, and it's just sludge, basically. The jobs that are going to go away were only going to be around for a couple of years, anyway," she said. "It's a pipeline to go basically from Canada down to the Gulf of New Mexico, crossing over various states, and if there's a leak, we suffer the damage. If it gets into the aquifers and pollutes those, that's just huge numbers of people who are going to be impacted."
This was one of several initiatives of the former president that Biden is attempting to roll back. In November, the Trump administration tried to open up public lands for mining purposes, requesting oil and gas firms choose what areas of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on which they would like to drill. Biden quickly suspended drilling on federal lands after he stepped into office, and Deason Toyne approves.
Senators voted on Tuesday to advance Biden's nomination of Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Ed Brocksmith, a co-founder of STIR, said he's hopeful the president will bring significant changes to the EPA, and is optimistic about Regan's leadership.
"Save the Illinois River and other conservation groups in Oklahoma can sure use a friend at the EPA," Brocksmith said. "We haven't had one for many years."
In 2018, the EPA released models for a TMDL - Total Maximum Daily Load - to be address the source of impairments caused by excess phosphorus in the Illinois River.
Arkansas and Oklahoma officials have yet to develop one, though. It's an issue that's been at the top conservationists' list of problems they would like to see addressed.
Brocksmith said he believes a TMDL is what it will take to see meaningful changes with regard to nonpoint source pollution that comes from runoff from animal feeding operations.
"I'd like to see the EPA enforce the federal Clean Water Act, which we feel requires a TMDL to be developed," he said. "If the states won't do it, the EPA is obligated to do it, in our opinion."
State officials have pointed to voluntary endeavors to clean up the watershed and remove phosphorus nutrients and bacteria through Best Management Practices.
Brocksmith said that won't be enough, though, to meet Oklahoma's phosphorus limit of 0.037 milligrams per liter, which it adopted in 2002. He also hopes the new administration will help address a permit sought by an Arkansas wastewater treatment plant to increase the amount of total phosphorus it is allowed to discharge into a tributary of the Illinois River.
"This is one reason, perhaps, to be optimistic about the new EPA administrator and the Biden administration," Brocksmith said. "This new permit for this wastewater plant in Arkansas will increase the amount of phosphorus that's charged into the Illinois River by 10 times. The skids are greased for that permit to be approved by Arkansas, and we will have to go to the EPA in order to get any relief."