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

[Archived] Scenic Rivers' water quality brings debate

| Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission | April 21, 2017


EDITOR'S NOTE:  Ed Fite is vice president of STIR, Save the Illinois
River, Inc.
 Oklahoma had no numeric phosphorus standard at the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Fayetteville case, only a narrative standard.
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Scenic Rivers' water quality brings debate 2002-06-23
By Jack Money The Oklahoman
 Trouble looms on Oklahoma's premier river, but it is not in the form of jagged rocks or swirling water.  These days on the Illinois River, rafters face an unseen hazard, the giant dollar signs that are at stake in a growing economic feud between Arkansas and Oklahoma over water quality. Called the "people's river" by environmentalists, the Illinois River attracts 350,000 visitors a year and pours $9 million into the state's economy, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board says. But they say the river also attracts an unwanted element. A rapid buildup of phosphorus, primarily from chicken litter produced by the $5 billion Arkansas poultry industry, threatens some of the state's most important waterways.
 Oklahoma wants to rein in the phosphorus overload by imposing strict limits on the Illinois River and five others, designated "Scenic Rivers."
 The rule, which also would affect the Baron Fork, Lee Creek, Little Lee Creek, Flint Creek and the Upper Mountain Fork, aims to improve the beauty of those streams and cut down on pollution problems in Lake Tenkiller, Grand Lake and other northeast Oklahoma lakes.
 States debate pollution source Arkansas officials are afraid the new phosphorus standard of .037 milligrams per liter of water would create an economic hardship for poultry companies, their contract farmers and others in the fast-growing Illinois River basin.
 Jim Pickens, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Economic Development, agrees the issue certainly has the attention of his state's leaders.
 "The poultry industry is huge in Arkansas," Pickens said. Just the poultry processing portion of the business employs about 40,000 people and generates an annual payroll of $943 million. Arkansas ranks second nationally in broiler production, third in turkey production and sixth in egg production. Eight of its 10 largest manufacturers are poultry operations, he said.
 Lately, the battle lines have been marked by an increasing number of threats and lawsuits over who is responsible for the deterioration of water quality and what should be done about it.
 Some Oklahomans are concerned that it will take too long to find the answers.
 "The Illinois River's headwaters are becoming highly developed," said Ed Fite, director of Oklahoma's Scenic Rivers Commission. "And my  windshield impression is that the river's quality is spiraling downward."
 Further loss of water quality could devastate the region, said Rod 
Foster, tourism coordinate at Tahlequah's Chamber of Commerce. "We also would lose major industries that are coming in," Foster said. 
"It is easy to just think of losing some fish if you have poor water quality. "But poor water quality brings up other issues that ... would make it more expensive to do business in our part of Oklahoma."
 Development hurts, helps region. Attracting industries and jobs is a significant concern for both states. The population of Oklahoma cities in the Illinois River basin grew by 25 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 15,365 to 20,623. The population grew even faster in northwest Arkansas, from 115,075 in 1990 to 174,691 in 2000, the Census Bureau reported, a 34 percent increase.  The northwest Arkansas region grew by nearly 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, its state chamber reports.
The median household income for the region also jumped by 18.4 percent
between 1993 and 1997.
 
But along with progress has come processing houses that discharge into municipal sewer systems, which in turn discharge into streams and rivers.  And poultry growers, who are hired by the industry to raise the animals, must dispose of the waste the birds leave behind. Typically, they spread it on fields that have more phosphorus than they need.
 
This is a significant issue, Fite said, who disagrees with poultry producers who say chicken litter is the independent growers' responsibility.
 
Fite said the average broiler grower keeps a group of chickens for an average of seven weeks, meaning he can raise six to seven flocks per year.  Each poultry house owned by a contractor can generate up to 120 tons of poultry litter annually, he said.  "What is being done with that product isn't waste utilization," Fite said.  "It would be better described as just waste disposal."
 
Leaders from both states are discussing the new standard and how it should be implemented. 
 Oklahoma's environmental secretary expressed optimism after one meeting in early June with the director of Arkansas' Department of Environmental Quality.  "I am extremely encouraged," Secretary Brian Griffin said after the meeting, which took place after the states' two top attorneys agreed to delay any potential legal action on the issue until discussions between Griffin and Arkansas fail.
 But Tulsa already has filed suit against six chicken corporations for polluting its water supplies in lakes Eucha and Spavinaw.  Defendants in the case are Tyson Foods, Peterson Farms, Tyson subsidiary Cobb-Vantress, Simmons Foods, Cargill and George's. The city of Decatur, Ark., also is a defendant because its wastewater treatment plant's primary customers are chicken processing plants. Tulsa filed its case after spending nearly $85 million on a water treatment plant and other system upgrades.  Grand Lake land owners also have filed suit against a poultry company for similar reasons.
Oklahoma's Legislature also is interested.  The group passed House Joint Resolution 1061 this year. The measure requires additional fiscal impact studies to be undertaken by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board before the rule is enforced and before state-level litigation over phosphorus begins.
 History plays role in fight
The hubbub is nothing new. It was Oklahoma phosphorus standards for the Illinois River that took the two states into federal court in the 1980s.  Many consider the case to be a watershed for environmental law because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Oklahoma could require an upstream state to meet its water quality standards.  But in the same case, the court invalidated Oklahoma's phosphorus standard at the time because it was too vague.
 Work then began on a new standard, which the water resources board approved earlier this year.  "It has been a huge issue since the 1980s, when the first lawsuit was filed against Arkansas by the Oklahoma Pollution Control Board," said Jeannine Hale, an attorney with the Oklahoma Sierra Club who serves on the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.  Originally, Oklahoma had a narrative standard that said no excessive algae growth would be permitted, Hale said. The Illinois River's water was nastier back then, she said, because it contained more untreated sewage.  Researchers also were working to pinpoint the cause of the algae, she said.  "Yes, algae growth is discouraging to tourism in the river, but it also affects the fish and wildlife community because it causes changes in the ecosystem and what species can survive within it," Hale said. "I do think the poultry industry is a big concern, that primarily is because we still don't have good regulations about where and how they can land-apply litter as fertilizer." 
 Hale said farmers are required when they get concentrated animal feeding operation permits to develop waste disposal plans. But Hale said there aren't enough people out there to help the farmers develop these plans.  "I think everybody could live happily ever after," Hale said. "It is going to take money, though, and I don't know where it is going to come from."
 Arkansas' Pickens, meanwhile, said his state also is sensitive to the environment for tourism and other economic development-related reasons.
"Our outstanding growth confirms that we are one of the best places in the nation to live and work," he said.  "I am confident that with such high economic stakes, this matter can be resolved in some amicable way so that both states can be winners."