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[Archived] Tending the Illinois

| News | June 17, 2001

There are two choices for flushing Northwest Arkansas' growing amount of treated sewage: Pipe it toward the region's drinking water supply or send it to Oklahoma.

From the Sunday, June 17, 2001 Arkansas

Tending the Illinois 

SPRINGDALE -- There are two choices for flushing Northwest Arkansas' growing amount of treated sewage: Pipe it toward the region's drinking water supply or send it to Oklahoma.

Not surprisingly, cities in this fast-growing region choose the out-of-state alternative while casting nervous glances to the west.

The Illinois River has achieved nearly sacred status in Oklahoma, where it's deemed a scenic river and given top environmental priority. But in Arkansas, where the Illinois is v valued more for drainage than for tourism, the river falls behind more treasured waterways such as the Buffalo and White rivers.

The land in the Illinois watershed is being developed on both sides of the state line. Along its tributaries in Arkansas stand a regional airport, proposed new highways and subdivisions galore, plus millions of chickens producing litter. Towns in western Washington and Benton counties -- all in the Illinois watershed -- are planning new and expanded sewer treatment plants that would empty into Illinois tributaries.

Arkansas officials are nervous about what Oklahomans will say about all those plans and just how much more Northwest Arkansas growth the river can handle and still fulfill its roles in Oklahoma. No one can answer that question. Scientists have tested the river for pollutants for decades but aren't sure how it's fared.

Oklahomans lost a decade-long court battle to keep Fayetteville from discharging its treated sewage into the Illinois, but a significant victory emerged from the loss. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the federal Environmental Protection Agency can require Arkansas to comply with the downstream state's water-quality standards.

An elaborate system of testing and sharing information resulted from the ruling. Oklahoma officials keep their eyes on every move east of their state border, monitoring actions of industries, agricultural operations and municipalities in Arkansas.

"In Oklahoma they're strong. They fight tooth and nail over there," said Mark Latham, city administrator for Siloam Springs.

Jerry Martin, engineer for the proposed Osage Basin Wastewater District, said the system's partners of Tontitown, Highfill, Elm Springs and Cave Springs expect at least some trouble when they request a permit to release treated sewage into the Illinois tributary of Osage Creek.

"Everybody says we're going to have problems with Oklahoma, and we realize that," Martin said.

Oklahoma officials said they'd rather talk than fight. Besides, they're more concerned these days with pollutants that flow into the river without a permit than with treated sewage.

Derek Smithee, water quality chief for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said his state's residents have an emotional attachment to the Illinois much like Arkansans' devotion to the Buffalo National River.

"We want that river to be more than just science says it should be," Smithee explained. "Arkansas is blessed with a bunch of streams and rivers. In Oklahoma they're a bit more rare."


The Illinois River emerges slender and clear along a hillside near Hogeye in Washington County. It follows an indirect route to Oklahoma by flowing north through Benton County before winding its way west. There it's dammed to create Lake Tenkiller. Below the dam it surrenders its contents to the Arkansas River.

The Illinois River in Oklahoma is popular for floating, attracting more than 180,000 canoeists and rafters each year. An estimated 350,000 people swim, fish, camp and hike along it, spending about $9 million a year.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, tests showed that phosphorus, harmful because it encourages algae blooms in downstream lakes, was on the rise in Lake Tenkiller. That worried Oklahoma residents, who depend on the lake for recreation, tourism and water. High levels of phosphorus create slimy, green water, deplete oxygen and can eventually harm fish and other wildlife.

The Arkansas River Compact Commission, with members from both states working together on water issues, agreed on a goal to decrease phosphorus by 40 percent.

The phosphorus loading estimate generally has declined in the past decade, from a five-year running average near Siloam Springs of 190,000 kilograms per year to 135,000 kilograms per year. The 40 percent reduction would be to 115,000 kilograms a year.

However, the levels are higher when the river swells during rain storms, which wash pollutants from upstream farmland, fertilized golf courses and urban yards. Testing hasn't historically included water samples taken during storms. Sampling during rainfall began in earnest about two years ago, said Reed Green, a water quality specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Point" sources, such as pipes that discharge from sewage treatment plants, generally contribute cleaner water to the river. The effects of "nonpoint" sources, such as farms, are harder to track because of the lack of samples, he said.

"Now the nonpoint source issue is driving monitoring plans," Green said. "What we've found is that the way we monitored back in the old days -- we're missing half the picture."

Now Green's colleagues head out during storms --often in the middle of the night -- to do the sometimes dangerous work of drawing water samples. Each storm is different, and it's difficult to determine a trend without many years of data.

"It's going to be a while before we know anything," Green said.

Brian Haggard, Green's counterpart with the U.S. Geological Survey in Oklahoma, agrees. It's not easy to say whether the river is getting better or worse, Haggard said.

"Anybody you ask can give you a different answer," he said. "It's a matter of perception."

Four years' worth of data during storms and from scheduled samples will be used to determine whether the phosphorus level has increased. Many more years of testing will be necessary before anyone knows for sure, Haggard said.

Even the drier-weather tests showed a slight increase in phosphorus levels in 1999. Amounts of rainfall, which run in about 18-year cycles, change the volume of the river and therefore the quality of the water. Water-quality experts say it would take many years -- even decades -- of rainy- and dry-weather testing to know what's really happening to the river.


Folks on both sides of the state line say they're working to improve the river. Farmers, who claim to get more than their share of blame for downstream pollution, nevertheless are changing practices with water quality in mind.

"The basic thing we're trying to do is keep the [Environmental Protection Agency] off our backs," said Alan Reed, a Washington County poultry and cattle farmer. "The best way to do that is to volunteer."

Reed and his parents have always farmed on the banks of Moore's Creek, which flows into Muddy Fork and then to the Illinois River. He's chairman of the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District, whose employees help farmers establish "nutrient management plans" that suggest the best way to spread fertilizer and dispose of tons of poultry litter.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Reed and his neighbor Bill Kelly walked the bank of Moore's Creek, explaining how their practices improve the water flowing across their farmland.

"Look how clear that water is," Reed said, pointing to the shallow stream, flowing slowly under shade trees.

The farmers plant different types of grasses, such as fescue and Bermuda, which absorb nutrients like phosphorus from the soil. They spread chicken litter as fertilizer in prescribed amounts on their fields, and cows then graze on the grass.

The more nutrients are absorbed by the grasses, the less flows into the creeks.

It's the same type operation their parents had when they were kids, but a lot more scientific these days.

"A lot of it's common sense," Kelly said.

Casey Dunigan, water quality technician with the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District, helps put together the management plans. Usually farmers call because the company they contract with, such as Tyson Foods Inc., asks them to.

The conservation district tests the soil to find out levels of nutrients, and checks other factors such as the slope of the land and its proximity to water. Those factors help them decide how many tons of litter can be spread per acre, and how often, to ensure that most of it is used as nutrients for the grass.

If the farm produces more litter than is needed for growing grass, the district recommends selling it to farmers who do need it.

The Washington County conservation district is one of the oldest in the nation, established in the late 1930s with the idea of helping farmers conserve soil that was blowing away during the Dust Bowl. These days, the highest priority is controlling nutrients in runoff, Dunigan said.

"This is a result of us realizing that this is something that needs to be managed," said Ed Nicholson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods. "We need to do it on a voluntary basis or the government will intervene."

There's usually no problem convincing a poultry grower to adopt such a plan, he said.

However, there's no way to ensure the farmers are following the suggestions.

Dry poultry litter does not require an environmental permit, unlike hog litter, which is wet. Still, Nicholson said farmers realize it's important to follow the plan.

"They would quite frankly rather do it on a voluntary basis," Nicholson said.

Animal waste is one of the sources of higher phosphorus levels in area rivers and usually gets the most attention, but it's not the only one, he emphasized. Septic tanks, recreation, riverside development and commercial fertilizers in urban areas are also culprits, Nicholson said.

"We want to do our part to be part of the solution, but we recognize that there are a lot of nonpoint sources," he said. "Over in northeastern Oklahoma, there is a very, very biased perception and portrayal of nutrient loading, that by and large points the finger at farm runoff, without even considering other nonpoint sources."

Ed Fite, the director of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said residents there are indeed concentrating more on the poultry industry.

Taking cities to court used to be the preferred method of disputing water quality issues. These days, Fite tends toward a more comprehensive approach.

"I remember in my 20s, we focused so much on Fayetteville, thinking, 'We've got to stop them,' " Fite recalls. "We didn't say so much about the poultry industry. ... I spent 10 years of my life fighting over Fayetteville, Ark."


Plenty of other towns on both sides of the state line discharge sewage into the Illinois or its tributaries -- towns with a combined population of 185,000 and growing. They include the Arkansas cities of Springdale, Rogers, Siloam Springs, Gentry, Lincoln and Prairie Grove and the Oklahoma cities of Westville, Stilwell and Tahlequah.

Treatment plants and industries with permits to discharge treated wastewater are only partial contributors to the river's health. Oklahoma residents now worry more about the contributors who don't have permits, the ones that are harder to monitor. And overall, there's more of a sense of cooperation, Fite said.

"Instead of everyone drawing a line in the sand and having a big brouhaha, we now sit down and work together," he said. "We concentrate on science instead of emotions running rampant."

Nearly a decade after Fayetteville won its battle to discharge treated sewage into the Illinois River watershed, the city is looking at discharging even more. The city will encounter a friendlier atmosphere toward sewage treatment, now that much of the attention in Oklahoma is focused on nonpoint sources of pollution.

Still, Fayetteville officials wonder how the process will go. The comment period for the city's proposed discharge permit will likely be this year.

Don Bunn, assistant public works director for Fayetteville, said city officials are keeping in touch with Oklahoma officials about their concerns. He doesn't expect any surprises or major obstacles.

The city is about half in the Illinois watershed and half in the White River watershed. The drinking water supply for most of the region is Beaver Lake, which was formed by damming the White River. Arkansas officials are working to protect their water supply, and their alternative is the Illinois.

New rural water lines have encouraged residential and commercial growth in the Illinois watershed in western Benton and Washington counties.

"We're going see that the west side will grow up a lot in the next 20 years, and I think in the whole region that's going to happen," Bunn said.

Oklahoma officials can't stop a sewer plant from being built, but they can argue over how clean the wastewater should be when it's discharged into creeks or the river.

"It will just be a matter doing whatever's necessary to protect the Illinois River, and I think we can," Bunn said. "It costs money. ... We're spending the money it takes to do that, and everyone else is going to have to, too."

What's pouring out of the pipe is often cleaner than the stream itself, said Martin, the engineer for the proposed Osage Basin district.

Treatment plants are often better than the alternative, which would be more septic tanks in the river's watershed, said Smithee, the water-quality manager for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

"A new sewage treatment plant sounds on the surface like it's not a good deal, but a lot of times that's the best solution," he said.

Oklahoma officials are working on a formula that would determine the levels of certain pollutants that the river can handle, known as its "total maximum daily load."

It represents the capacity of the river to take certain pollutants.

"Just like we have the ability to carry chemicals in our body ... we have the ability to assimilate waste and pollution to a certain point, and the bottom falls out of the bucket," Smithee said.

Smithee said the proposed load levels for the Illinois will be published soon, and Arkansas officials will have a chance to comment. If the Arkansas River Compact Commission can agree on the levels, that new benchmark will supersede the current goal of a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus.


The small cities that make up the Osage Basin Wastewater District in Washington and Benton counties have encountered skepticism from Arkansas officials who expect Oklahoma to fight the proposed plant. The small cities west of Springdale and Rogers have teamed up to build a sewer plant that would serve all the towns.

"It's almost a given that there will be a legal battle with Oklahoma," said Craig Corder, engineering supervisor with Arkansas Department of Health. The department wants several questions answered -- including how the partners would pay for a legal fight -- before considering grant applications with the state's Water and Wastewater Advisory Committee.

Tontitown Mayor Dan Watson, chairman of the Osage Basin board, said there won't be a legal battle if the group meets discharge permit requirements of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

"We feel like we will meet the requirements, whatever they are. We have to," Watson said.

In Rogers, city officials say they go beyond permit requirements to clean the city's sewage. In turn, they have had no trouble with downstream neighbors. Osage Creek begins inside the Rogers city limits.

"We can't blame anybody upstream for its quality," said Michael Lawrence, manager of the Rogers Pollution Control Facility. "I know they're concerned about what Springdale and Rogers and Fayetteville are doing. We want them to know we're doing everything we can within reason."

There are no limits on Rogers' discharge permits for phosphorus levels, but the city works to reduce phosphorus, anyway.

Oklahoma officials raised no problems when Rogers renewed its discharge permit last year.

"It went very well. I personally think one of the reasons that it did is because we've tried to be very visible with efforts to be good neighbors. We've had Mr. Fite out at our plants and invited him to look at our records," Lawrence said.

The city is conducting an extensive watershed management program, funded by the Arkansas Soil and Water Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, to look at all the pollutants entering the streams in Rogers.

Smithee said his colleagues now realize that educational programs like the one in Rogers are more productive, in the long run, than legal battles.

"Frankly, I just think that's a horrible way to do water-quality management," he said. "If I could look into a crystal ball and see the next five years, I think I'd see more interstate cooperation, with agencies on both sides of the border helping each other out."

Smithee said Arkansas and Oklahoma officials will work together at technical levels, in boardrooms and laboratories rather than courtrooms.

"In five or six or 10 years," Smithee said, "if we're not seeing changes in the way people are applying their litter and changes in water quality, then that's when you take it to the next level."