GUEST EDITORIAL: Phosphorus new and old haunts Illinois, Tenkiller Lake

Ed Brocksmith

Just in time for Halloween, a report shows phosphorus is a nightmarish trick on us by the poultry industry.

For decades, chicken growers spread manure on pastures near the river to grow grass for cattle. Cities are not blameless; they poured increasing amounts of phosphorus into the watershed as populations grew. Phosphorus-saturated soil and sediment is stirred up by more frequent flooding and construction activity. Now, like an army of zombies clawing from riverside graves, legacy phosphorus haunts the quality of our water.

As bureaucrats work to meet the Illinois River water quality limit for phosphorus, there is a growing realization that our grandchildren will never know the Illinois and Lake Tenkiller as we do. In our lives, we probably will never see Oklahoma's phosphorus limit achieved, nor will state and federal authorities muster the courage enforce it.

The phosphorus limit for Oklahoma Scenic Rivers (0.037 mg/L) was adopted in 2002, but only recently has Arkansas agreed the limit is the point at which nuisance algae begin to grow, making streambed rocks slimy and the water murky. Because of a growing population and land use changes in the 1,600-square mile Illinois River watershed, meeting the limit is a huge challenge made more difficult by the anti-regulation philosophy in Washington. States and the EPA want to put their faith in voluntary programs and best management practices. Voluntary efforts like vegetative buffers along streams are good, but they will not take the place of strong, science-based water quality rules that have been systematically trashed by the Trump administration.

As if cursed by witches, we live downstream from an industry that needs millions of chickens close to its processing plants in Arkansas. We are hexed by state agencies that do not communicate about water pollution, that coddle poultry companies with permits for mega poultry farms and water well permits. We got stabbed in the back by the EPA, which spent millions of dollars on scientific studies to protect the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller, only to put the plans on a shelf, much to the relief of states and some of our congressmen.

Phosphorus in the Illinois River watershed has dramatically increased, as shown by a report presented in September to the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission. The report shows phosphorus greatly surpasses our limit when measured at the state line (0.065 mg/L) and at Tahlequah (0.059 mg/L). Tons of phosphorus empty into Lake Tenkiller, averaging nearly 78,000 kilograms a year or more than 85 tons. While no bureaucrat wants to attribute the reason for the upsurge in Illinois River phosphorus loading, they allude to the big floods we have had the past several years. Raging water erodes streambanks, cuts new water channels, and resuspends sediments packed with phosphorus - old phosphorus that is the legacy of poultry farmers and corporations. With climate change, more frequent heavy rainstorms may be our future.

Authorities optimistically point evidence showing phosphorus in the Illinois River and tributaries indeed is trending downward. In the period of 1980-1983, the average phosphorus level was over 0.2 mg/L. That is about the time people noticed the quality of the Illinois was declining rapidly. From 1998-2002, an average of nearly 168,000 kilograms of phosphorus yearly moved across the state line. Beginning in 2002, the goal of 40-percent reduction of phosphorus in Lake Tenkiller was achieved at the Watts, Oklahoma, testing site. That goal was trashed according to the most current data. You may read the report at https://illinoisriver.org/articles/page/308/phosphorus-report-september-24-2020-to-the-arkansas-oklahoma-arkansas-river-compact-commission.

There are some positive things happening, and Save the Illinois River remains optimistic about our mission to protect and preserve the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller. Arkansas and Oklahoma water quality regulators are meeting, Arkansas has stopped fighting our water quality rules, and poultry companies are transporting tons of waste from the Illinois River watershed after being sued by Oklahoma. (When can we expect a verdict, Federal District Court Judge Gregory Frizzell?) Many folks say water quality of the river has improved. However, we are increasingly concerned about Tenkiller, that beautiful bathtub that catches all the upstream pollution and floods.

If we go trick-or-treating this Halloween, STIR won't be knocking on the doors of Tyson and Simmons and other poultry companies. Horrors, ghosts, and zombies await within, and phosphorus, old and new, still is their handout.

Ed Brocksmith is a retired media executive and a founder of Save The Illinois River Inc.

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