The Illinois River Watershed Steering Committee held a virtual meeting Monday to provide updates, with various environmental agencies and scientists discussing the ongoing work to address phosphorus pollution.

The steering committee was established through a Memorandum of Agreement between the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment, the Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture, the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment/Division of Environmental Quality, and the Arkansas Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Division in November 2018. The goal is to further protect and improve water quality in the Illinois River Watershed. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic throwing a wrench in many plans for agencies across the country, many steering committee members indicated the work has not stopped.

“It should be noted that members of this group have been able to consistently and regularly meet to continue collaborating in this effort,” said Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources Chad Harsha. “I think that speaks to the commitment of this group in working toward consensus-based solutions for water quality in northeastern Oklahoma.”

Dr. Ryan King delivered a presentation on the Oklahoma-Arkansas Scenic Rivers Joint Phosphorous Study, which was designed after the two states signed the Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions.

“Ultimately, the study framework was about determining the total phosphorous threshold response level at which any statistically significant shift occurred in algal species composition, or algal biomass production, that results in an undesirable esthetic, nuisance conditions; or water quality, which would be potentially interpreted as dissolved oxygen for example,” said King.

The most important response variable to nuisance condition was predominantly a species called Cladophora glomerata, or green algae. Over the course of the study, King and others took samples of streams and rivers within the Illinois River Watershed. As a result of the study, in which King said some areas showed stream bottoms carpeted with algae, the research team recommended a numeric standard of .035 mg/L for total phosphorous.

“A six-month average total phosphorous level not to exceed .035 mg/L during critical conditions is necessary to protect the designated scenic rivers,” said King. “So in conclusion, our data highly suggested that Cladophora are likely to bloom and result in undesirable esthetic in the scenic rivers when the six month average phosphorous exceeded .035 [mg/L].”

According to Oklahoma Water Resources Board officials, the .037 mg/L standard for total phosphorous, which was adopted by Oklahoma in 2003, would not be changing to the recommendation provided by the committee overseeing the study. According to OWRB, the value is not considered significantly different in accordance with the Second Statement of Joint Principles.

However, according to OWRB staff, progress has been made toward a 40 percent reduction goal of phosphorous. Julie Chambers, of OWRB, gave an update on the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission. She said all the sites they are sampling are moving in the right direction toward having the water reach below .037 mg/L.

“But many of the sites and many of the data points are still well above the .037 [mg/L],” said Chambers. “So although we’ve had a lot of work done within the watershed and we’re moving toward that, we still have work to do.”

Many participants discussed how the states have improved water quality and made progress to reducing phosphorous. However, during the public comment period, water quality advocates called on the agencies to do more.

Scott Hood, a longtime angler in Oklahoma, said watershed advocates are long ready for action, aside from meetings and studies, and that he appreciates the effort agencies are putting forward.

“However, the pure bureaucracy of this shell game has gone on so long that in those years I’ve been an angler in the lower Illinois River, I’ve witnessed Lake Tenkiller change from a pristine Ozark Mountain lake into a near cesspool holding tank for chicken litter,” said Hood. “Years of uncontrolled and wholesale spreading of chicken feces within the watershed annually turns the outflow of Lake Tenkiller into a putrid-smelling liquid mess, so bad that at times of the year when the lake turns over, people get sick to their stomach from the smell. As the water spills from the sluice gate or the low flow pipe below the dam, it changes from anoxic to what is still impaired water with low dissolved oxygen, and it effervesces sulphite gasses the likes you can smell only on a trip to Yellow Stone Park’s steaming hot cauldrons of poison water. The Illinois River Watershed should not be that way.”

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