Conservation groups, former AG criticize Illinois River water quality agreement
A new Illinois River water quality agreement between Oklahoma and Arkansas state agencies is drawing praise from the governors of the two states, but criticism from environmental groups.
"The big disappointment is there is nothing in this agreement that requires any kind of pollution reduction in the river," said Mark Derichsweiler, vice chairman of Sierra Club's Oklahoma chapter. "Incredibly, rather than propose actual measures to clean up the river and lake (Tenkiller), the memorandum of agreement would create new bureaucracies and crank up even more studies."
Former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson expressed concern that the agreement could be a "backdoor effort" by Arkansas officials to keep water quality standards from being enforced.
The Illinois River, which flows into northeastern Oklahoma from Arkansas, is regarded as one of Oklahoma's most scenic rivers. Preserving and improving the quality of the river's waters is important to thousands of people who flock to the area near Tahlequah each year to rent rafts and canoes to paddle down the river.
Threatening that water quality is effluent from the sewage treatment plants of fast-growing northwestern Arkansas cities as well as waste from poultry farms in the region.
Friction between individuals and states with competing interests has sparked lawsuits and negotiations that have led to various studies, agreements and court decisions over the years.
The agreement announced last week is complicated, but essentially preserves many of the current regulatory restrictions on phosphorus contamination levels while establishing a framework for Oklahoma and Arkansas agencies to work cooperatively on water quality issues in the future.
"I'm proud that our agencies have taken on this challenge and developed such a collaborative solution," Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said of the eight-page memorandum of agreement.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the agreement an "innovative, state-based approach to address challenges in the Illinois River watershed."
"I applaud the efforts on both sides and I believe this agreement will allow us to leverage our collective resources to greatly improve the water quality in the Illinois River for future generations," Hutchinson said.
Conservation groups skeptical
"We are extremely disappointed that this memorandum of agreement proposes absolutely no provisions that will result in substantial water quality improvements any time soon," said Ed Brocksmith of Save The Illinois River.
"It's been nearly two years since an expert panel determined that Oklahoma's water quality standard for phosphorus is scientifically valid. That standard has been on the books for 15 years now and we still have no plan on how to meet it."
For pollution sources like sewage treatment plants, "it locks in the limits that they have currently," Derichsweiler said. "Those streams are already impaired, which means they don't meet the water quality standards. We think that's a big legal problem with the Water Quality Act. You can't issue permits under the Clean Water Act that don't comply with water quality standards."
Ron Suttles, board chairman of the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma, said he is disappointed the agreement makes no mention of completing a study to determine the maximum daily amount of phosphorus that the river could accommodate while meeting established water quality standards. The Environmental Protection Agency began the study, but then dropped it, he said.
Signing the agreement for Oklahoma were Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Michael Teague and Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese. Signing for Arkansas were Becky Keogh, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality; and Bruce Holland, executive director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.
The agreement calls for Oklahoma and Arkansas agencies to share data and work together to develop and begin implementing a watershed improvement plan within four years.
Teague said he understands the concerns of environmental groups, but believes the agreement will lead to better water quality. Teague said the agreement commits Arkansas to accepting the 0.037 milligrams per liter phosphorus standard at the state line, which Oklahoma has insisted was correct for years. It also formalizes how Oklahoma and Arkansas will work together to improve water quality, he said.
Edmondson says concerns are justified
Edmondson, Oklahoma's former attorney general, said he is wary of the new agreement. Edmondson sued several poultry companies in 2005, contending excessive use of poultry litter as fertilizer was polluting the Illinois River watershed.
"I would be hopeful that it would end up something productive, but I'm a little concerned that it will be used to change the water quality standards to our detriment." Edmondson said.
Environmentalists are "well advised to be concerned," he said.
"Arkansas has attempted for years to stop our water quality standards from going into effect, and then made another run just a few years ago to try to set them aside," he said. "The result of that study was that the standards were appropriate and, if anything, they should be a little tougher.
"This appears to be — at least has the potential — of being another run at changing the standards and that would concern me," Edmondson said.
"If they are operating in good faith and really want to figure out how to get the litter out of the watershed and continue to make improvements to the quality of water, then bless them and I wish them all good luck on that. But we'll be watching to make sure this is not another backdoor effort to stop the standards from being enforced."