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[Archived] Report Reveals Water Quality Flushing Away

| Environment | January 04, 2013

By Sally Maxwell, Managing Editor

Sequoyah County Times (Oklahoma)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005 3:49 PM CDT

Lake Tenkiller, the Illinois River and the Arkansas River are all listed as "impaired" in a report released Monday by the State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

"Impaired" means the water quality has reached a point where it cannot be used for some beneficial uses and activities, depending upon the impairment.

Monty Elder, DEQ spokeswoman, explained that those beneficial uses include swimming, fishing, wading, being used for public or private water supplies, hydropower and agriculture.

"It means the water quality is not good enough to support at least one of the things you should be able to use this water for," Elder said.

At the lake and two rivers, all of which cross Sequoyah County, impaired means the following, Elder said.

*Arkansas River - Impaired because bacteria were found, along with some heavy metals. The river was also listed as impaired for turbidity. Elder explained that means some visible substances are in the water which makes the river not pleasant to view. The river's impairments interfere with swimming, wading and the propagation of fish and wildlife. Elder explained that does not mean the fish taken from the river cannot be eaten. "It just means the river doesn't have the best conditions for the propagation of fish and wildlife," Elder said, "or as large or as healthy a fish supply as we would like."

*Illinois River north of Lake Tenkiller - Impaired due to phosphorus, all bacteria and turbidity.

*Barron Fork in Adair County (which flows into Lake Tenkiller) - Impaired due to many types of bacteria, usually caused by animal feces or septic systems too close to the water; also impaired by phosphorus and turbidity. The impairments interfere with swimming and using the creek for public and private water supplies.

Elder explained that public water supplies are all treated and the impairments pose no risk. "If they did, the water processor would be getting letters from us (DEQ)," Elder said.

*Tenkiller Lake - Impaired by phosphorus, but not by the impairments which were found in the upper Illinois River and Barron Fork, Elder said. She explained the phosphorus causes algae to grow, and the algae use up the oxygen. The low oxygen interferes with fish and wildlife propagation. "The fish are not thriving at a rate we would like them too," Elder said.

*Webbers Falls Lake - Impaired by turbidity, which means the lake is not as "pretty to look at as we'd like," Elder said.

*Kerr Lake - Impaired by turbidity and for fish and wildlife propagation. "That doesn't mean the fish caught there cannot be eaten," Elder said. "It means the water quality is not the best for a large and healthy fish population."

The top three reasons for impaired rivers are bacteria, cloudiness, and larger solids floating in the river that should not be, Elder said. The top three impairment causes are cloudiness, low oxygen and phosphorus.

Elder said the DEQ did not delineate the sources of phosphorus, but in June Attorney General Drew Edmondson filed a lawsuit against 14 poultry companies because of phosphorus found in eastern Oklahoma watershed.

Solutions Sought

State lawmakers, hoping to find a market-driven solution to the phosphorus in eastern Oklahoma's water, announced last month they will conduct a legislative study to develop new markets for poultry waste.

"We're looking for any creative ideas that will develop a market for poultry waste," State Rep. Dan Sullivan (R-Tulsa) said.

Sullivan requested the study.

Sequoyah County has no chicken producers who raise chickens for the supermarket, however, there may be producers who raise the parent chicks for egg and meat production, Tony Yates with the OSU Extension Office in Sallisaw has said.

In addition, the town of Muldrow is involved in litigation with OK Foods, which has a processing plant in Muldrow, about overloading the town's sewage plant with chicken processing waste. Landowners downstream from the plant also claim the chicken processing has led to residues and pollutant downstream from the plant.

Sullivan is seeking a solution to the problem of chicken waste.

"If the state can encourage the use of that product through tax incentives or other methods, it just makes environmental sense to do it. If we can create a market-driven solution for this problem, we can eliminate the phosphorous from our watersheds without resorting to expensive litigation that could wreck the economy of rural eastern Oklahoma," Sullivan said.

The concentration of poultry waste near poultry operations in eastern Oklahoma has contributed to phosphorus pollution in the water, studies have revealed.

Oklahoma has about 900 poultry producers who raise more than 58 million birds in 21 counties. Officials believe there are roughly 3,000 poultry houses in Oklahoma, each producing an average of 125 tons of poultry waste per year, or a collective statewide total of 375,000 tons annually.

Research indicates 1,845 poultry houses are located in nutrient-limited watersheds generating an estimated 231,000 tons of litter.

Finding a way to dispose of that litter without environmental problems has not been easy, but Sullivan said demand for the litter exists if the state encourages development of that market.

"We need to find a proper balance between protection of our watersheds and protecting the economy of eastern Oklahoma since a clean water supply is tied to further development of our economy," Sullivan said.

Sullivan noted the waste could be used for fertilizer in some parts of the state without damaging local water sources.

"They need phosphorous in western Oklahoma," Sullivan said. "We just need to find an economical way to get it there."

Sullivan said other options are also available.

"There's some technology out there that can transform the waste into an odor-free pellet used for fuel," he said. The pellets could be used as a fuel source in special electric plants or even in limited household applications, he said.

"We want to find out what market-driven ideas are out there," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the study will not impact Edmondson's actions against the poultry industry. However, he said the study could potentially solve the problem that led to Edmondson's litigation in the first place and save thousands of jobs in rural Oklahoma at the same time.