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[Archived] Group pledges action on Illinois watershed

| News | September 25, 2005

Group pledges action on Illinois watershed

BY ROBERT J. SMITH Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Posted on Thursday, September 29, 2005

SPRINGDALE — Mark Weather keeps to himself, raising chickens on his farm near Gentry and doing what he can to keep from polluting the Illinois River.
He’s steered clear of the fuss between Oklahoma and Arkansas about river pollution.

But on Wednesday, Weathers sat across the table from representatives of Arkansas cities, poultry companies, developers and environmental groups, swapping ideas about how to protect the river as part of the first Upper Illinois River Watershed Summit. "The overall theme and idea is very worthy," said Weathers, who raises chickens for Tyson Foods Inc. "Farmers like to stay to ourselves, but we can’t do that anymore."

Wednesday’s meeting at the Jones Center for Families in Springdale was the first time Arkansans had come together to talk about how to protect the Upper Illinois River watershed.

The 45 delegates promised to do more than talk about protecting the watershed. The only formal action Wednesday was to form a 15-person committee to meet periodically and make recommendations at a meeting of the delegates on Dec. 15. "Leadership is committed to take action," said LuAnne Diffin, environmental services coordinator for Rogers Water Utilities and an organizer of Wednesday’s summit. "This is great."

She and others hope the summit will lead to a Northwest Arkansas group similar in some ways to the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. The Tahlequah, Okla.-based state agency formed in 1977 with a goal of improving water quality in the Illinois River and its tributaries.

Oklahoma was among the reasons for Wednesday’s summit. The state in 2002 passed a limit on the amount of phosphorus that can flow in the state’s scenic rivers, including the Illinois. Arkansas must meet that limit at the state line.

Phosphorus in waterways can degrade water quality.

There’s also a lawsuit filed in June by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson against poultry companies with operations in Arkansas. That lawsuit blames the companies for allowing poultry litter to pollute Oklahoma streams.

Ed Fite, Scenic Rivers Commission director, offered encouragement to the group before talking about the importance of protecting water quality in fastgrowing Northwest Arkansas. "You can have all the jobs in the world, but if you can’t go out and fish and swim and have clean lakes at the end of the day, people aren’t going to come here to take a job," Fite said. "We need to participate and communicate back and forth across the state line to make things better."

John Lewis, the retired Fayetteville banker who is chairman of the Beaver Water District board of directors, said protecting the Illinois River should be important in Arkansas for reasons that go beyond Edmondson’s lawsuit and Oklahoma’s phosphorus limit. "I’m going to have a hard time telling my granddaughters that I helped degrade streams," Lewis said. "So let’s pull together"