Water protectors fear Spring Creek may be in jeopardy

Spring Creek flows through many areas in Cherokee County.

Spring Creek in northeastern Oklahoma has long served as a recreational site and resource for nearby property owners, but area residents who have noticed recent changes in its condition are collecting data to help determine the stream’s quality.

Over the past two years, Spring Creek Coalition President Beth Rooney has spotted long, filamentous algae on her property, and other people are starting to report similar cases. In an ongoing monitoring project, the water protectors are noticing high levels of bacteria at several sites along Spring Creek.

“We’re already seeing some problems in the creek we didn’t know we had, so it’s been eye-opening in a way,” Rooney said. “We’ve seen a lot of bacteria in the upper stretches of the creek, and our challenge now is to try and figure out where that’s coming from and come up with some solutions for it, if possible.”

The nonprofit organization has enlisted the help of Waterkeeper Alliance to ensure its volunteers are properly testing the waters and sending samples to a certified lab so the results could hold up in court, if need be. The group is concentrating on six sites along the Spring Creek watershed, starting below Kansas, Oklahoma, and including locations where the creek picks up some of its major tributaries. Of the six sites, the three farthest upstream have been found to have high levels of E. coli.

“So it seems like the creek cleans itself as it goes down,” said Rooney. “Maybe it gets its flows from spring water that doesn’t have bacteria. Most months, the three [sites] downstream are good, and the three upstream are bad.”

The group’s planned date to conduct further testing, however, followed a 2-inch rain event, after which they found five of the six sites to have high levels of E. Coli. The causes of such bacteria could be attributed to sewage lagoons overflowing, cattle manure washing into creek, or poultry litter spread across pastures as fertilizer that makes its way into the system.

Rooney said the Coalition can’t be certain where exactly the bacteria is coming from, although many locals suspect the additional poultry operations throughout the region are a driving factor. No matter the cause, such indications of E. coli are not a good sign, she said.

“Some of them are bad enough that if it were a lake, they would tell you not to go swimming,” she said.

The goal is to establish a baseline of data so the Coalition can see what changes occur in the creek as time progresses. If the changes are for the worst, the group can start to look for solutions.

“I wish we would have done it 10 years ago, because that’s when the creek was really pristine,” Rooney said. “We don’t know what we’ll find. We’re assuming we’re going to find unfortunate things happening.”

On top of its mission to collect water data for Spring Creek, SCC is in the middle of a lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, arguing the state has failed to properly oversee poultry operations for which it issues permits, and that new facilities are being constructed without advance notice to area landowners.

“When they issue these permits, they don’t properly, in our opinion, live up to their own statutes to make sure harm isn’t going to come from these poultry operations,” Rooney said. “The states were given the burden that each can implement the Clean Water Act their own way. Their statutes say there should be no water discharged to the state that’s polluted or impaired by agriculture.”

The Coalition’s counsel estimated a trial for a lawsuit could be four to five months out.

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