Save the Illinois River, Inc.
24369 E 757 Rd.
Tahlequah, OK 74464-1949
(918) 284-9440

Moon Pies and Illinois River TMDL

STIR Inc. | Environment | May 10, 2018



In April, EPA announced it had completed scientific modeling for Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller.  The announcement was followed by a bit of optimism and a slew of questions.  Now, Arkansas and Oklahoma, the states that failed for decades to follow the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) by adopting TMDLs, have had the issue dumped back in their laps.

Consider a TMDL as a pollution diet for a stream or lake.  The diet would tell you how many Moon Pies you can eat before getting fat.  It would even tell you how many calories are in the pies.  In the case of the Illinois River and Lake Tenkiller, the water is over fertilized by nutrients, especially phosphorus.  TMDLs should identify sources of the phosphorus and establish limits on farms, cities and others contributing to it.

Quarreling and threats of lawsuits have gone back and forth across our border with Arkansas since Fayetteville built a sewage plant on an Illinois River tributary and after our adoption of a limit for the nutrient phosphorus in 2003.   That critical limit applies to all our scenic rivers and is not being enforced.  Phosphorus at the Arkansas border exceeds the 0.037 mg/L limit by 90-percent.  Downstream at Tahlequah, the limit is exceeded by 78-percent. *  Fortunately, phosphorus levels are trending downward according to regulators.

What could happen now that EPA has given the states the science that could lead to needed TMDLs?  Several scenarios come to mind: The states will work together using the models to develop a watershed plan resulting in TMDLs that are fair to both states.  Apparently, this is what EPA, headed by former Oklahoman Scott Pruitt, wants. Oklahoma might push the EPA to perform the TMDLs.  Oklahoma may believe this is an option although it is not on the EPA’s agenda.  President Trump’s and Pruitt’s anti-regulation agendas seem to put a damper on this idea.

Arkansas could refuse to cooperate on developing TMDLs so it can protect the poultry industry and rapidly growing northwest Arkansas cities.  Arkansas recently received EPA approval of its impaired waters list after years of haggling over that list.  Now, the list does not include Illinois River tributaries previously considered by EPA as impaired by phosphorus.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to do TMDLs for impaired waters.  The Illinois River is not designated as a scenic river by Arkansas and Arkansas does not have a numeric phosphorus limit for the Illinois River.  Oklahoma does have a limit on total phosphorus for designated scenic rivers.  This is to protect scenic rivers by preventing the growth of algae. Litigation is not out of the question.

A study by Baylor University determined Oklahoma’s phosphorus limit is scientifically sound and, in fact, may be a little weak.  That study was paid for by Arkansas in hopes that the .037 mg/L limit would be determined unscientific and could be ignored.  The Baylor study may have backfired.  Some think the three-year study was designed to appease northwest Arkansas political and economic interests.  A few of our own Congressmen sided with Arkansas in letters cautioning EPA to consider the economic consequences of TMDLs.  Oklahoma and Arkansas still have not acknowledged the Baylor University study of our scenic rivers, a study the governors of both states approved and agreed to honor.


Underlying everything is the United States Supreme Court opinion that Arkansas must meet Oklahoma’s water quality regulations (Oklahoma and Save the Illinois River vs. EPA).  Still looming largely is the federal court lawsuit Oklahoma filed against Tyson and other Arkansas poultry companies for polluting the Illinois River watershed. That suit was tried ten years ago but the judge has not ruled yet. He should wake up.

Federal and state regulation of nonpoint source pollution caused by agriculture is lacking. Land application of poultry manure is on the upswing in Oklahoma’s part of the Illinois River watershed and more and larger poultry farms are going up.  Sewage plant permits in our watershed are in limbo and cities can’t plan for needed expansion until there is a TMDL for the Illinois River.

In our lives, we’ve seen the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake soiled by algae, bacteria and sediment from urban sprawl.  Our patience is worn thin and we want our water quality rules for scenic rivers enforced.  With TMDLs based on good, scientific modeling, TMDLs that are equitable for both Arkansas and Oklahoma and TMDLs crafted in good faith, we might see the water crystal clear again.


Like the Kingfisher, STIR will be watching the water for you.

By Ed Brocksmith, Save the Illinois River, Inc.

May 10, 2018

*2017 report to the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission on the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers instream phosphorus limit of 0.037 mg/L.

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