On Thursday, another group begins work on another plan to protect the Illinois River. The Illinois River Watershed Steering Committee will oversee implementation of the Memorandum of Agreement signed last year by Arkansas and Oklahoma officials.
According to the terms of the MOA, the states “acknowledge and accept that the existing Oklahoma numeric value of 0.037 mg/L will remain as the total phosphorus criterion magnitude at the state line.” This means Arkansas, after fighting us nearly 20 years, has accepted the scientific viability of our phosphorus limit for Oklahoma Scenic Rivers. It’s about time! The job now is to determine over the next five years exactly how the 0.037 mg/L criterion will be met.
No one seems to want a lawsuit to meet Oklahoma’s water quality rules, but the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for Oklahoma to sue Arkansas. The court said upstream states must meet the water quality standards of states downstream. That ruling stems from state of Oklahoma and Save the Illinois River Inc. vs. U.S. EPA, and is taught in law schools across the nation.
We live downstream from a growing region, which in not too many years is expected to have a population of a million people. The amount of sewage to be treated is challenging. There is the complex problem of phosphorus from nonpoint sources, including poultry farms, cattle and septic tanks. Nonpoint source pollution doesn’t flow out of pipes you can see. It enters our rivers and lakes when heavy rain sweeps animal manure into ditches leading to the river. It seeps into our ground water. Even when these sources of phosphorus are controlled, there is the issue of legacy phosphorus, that which has accumulated in the soils adjoining the Illinois River over decades of poultry litter application.
Right now, at Watts, Oklahoma, bordering Arkansas, phosphorus exceeds the 0.037 mg/L limit by more than 90 percent. Downstream at Tahlequah, the algae-causing nutrient exceeds the limit by more than 80 percent. The figures are a five-year rolling average of water samples (2013-2018). If you were to exceed the turnpike speed limit driving to Tulsa by 90 percent, you would clock in at 142 mph.
More than 45,000 kilograms of phosphorus flowed past Tahlequah, degrading Lake Tenkiller between 2014-2018. This equals more than 49.5 tons, or nearly three 10-wheel dump trucks, of phosphorus. Phosphorus and nitrogen are responsible for the death of lakes in a process called eutrophication.
For those who look at a half-empty glass as half full, I acknowledge that phosphorus levels have gone down in the watershed. For the period 1998-2002, the phosphorus level averaged 0.275 mg/L, the highest level recorded.
I firmly believe former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s lawsuit against Tyson and other Arkansas poultry companies is a big cause of lower phosphorus levels. After that 2010 suit, poultry companies began removing much of their waste from the watershed. Today’s state leaders just don’t seem to have the fire in their bellies that Edmondson had. To U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frizzell: Isn’t it time you ruled on the Tyson lawsuit or explained to the people why you have not ruled?
Gov. Kevin Stitt wants Oklahoma to be a top 10 state. Clean water seems to fit very nicely into that goal. The type of new industry we want appreciates the value of clean water as a tool to recruit and keep good employees.
I love this state despite its warts, and I hope Stitt and Secretary of Energy and Environment Kenneth Wagner see the value in protecting Oklahoma Scenic Rivers. I hope that in my lifetime, I will see the Illinois River fully protected and crystal-clear once more.
Ed Brocksmith is a cofounder of Save the Illinois River (STIR) and former chairman of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.