, Muskogee, OK


April 3, 2013

Making sense of scenic rivers principles

In late February, media sources reported that Arkansas and Oklahoma had executed a new Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions related to Oklahoma’s Scenic Rivers. Since then many of you are asking, “What’s the deal? We thought the two states had already dealt with this issue.”  

The answer is yes. In December 2003, both states executed an agreement memorializing a common goal for improving water quality in Oklahoma Scenic Rivers. In that agreement, Arkansas and Oklahoma committed to the bi-state partnership, through which we would work cooperatively to mitigate excess nutrients originating from point and non-point pollutant sources impacting these scenic rivers. Since 2003, this partnership led to $300 million being expended by NW Arkansas and NE Oklahoma cities to upgrade waste water treatment plants, along with poultry companies and contract growers developing a new market process that has achieved the removal of 75 percent of all poultry waste from these watersheds.

The synergy of efforts netted considerable reductions in phosphorus levels and much improved water quality in Oklahoma Scenic Rivers.

Despite the gains, some don’t realize the first agreement, as it was written, was doomed not to achieve overall success for this reason:  a one-line sentence inserted by Arkansas representatives “steadfastly insisted and maintained” Oklahoma’s new phosphorus criterion for scenic rivers could never be attained. They argued openly it would cause dire ramifications to the growth of NW Arkansas and its economy.  

And, as predicted, when the term of partnership was concluding, Arkansas representatives resurrected their concerns and made it known they were considering legal action to challenge implementation of Oklahoma’s 0.037mg/L phosphorus criterion for scenic rivers.

At that point, Gary L. Sherrer, Oklahoma’s secretary of the environment, convened a meeting with Arkansas officials to discuss their concerns and explore alternatives for the two states to continue building on the successes already achieved.  

After several months of maneuvering on both sides of the border, Secretary Sherrer’s efforts paid dividends. Working together,  Randy Young, director of the  Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and Teresa Marks, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, along with  Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, in  consultation with their respective sister-state environmental agencies, developed a framework that the two states believe “is in the best interests to continue to work cooperatively to protect and improve water quality in Oklahoma Scenic Rivers and to avoid costly and protracted litigation and administrative proceedings which would further strain relationships between the two states and distract from those cooperative efforts.”

What resulted was simply a three-year extension of the 2003 Agreement. Both states will continue work to mitigate impact from point and non-point pollutant sources. However, the most important aspect of the second agreement is that both states have committed to: 1) conduct a Joint Study to determine the Total Phosphorus threshold, at which level a significant shift occurs in algae production that results in undesirable water quality conditions; 2) agree to be bound by findings of the Joint Phosphorus Criteria Study; 3) in lieu of further litigation, that they will implement controls to achieve desired results of the Joint Study.  

The Joint Study will be managed by a six-member committee — three appointed by Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe and three appointed by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin. All six members shall be professionally qualified to design and conduct scientific water quality studies. During the course of the three-year study period, the Joint Study Committee will be required to conduct public hearing(s) each year to receive public comments and for dissemination of interim reports. At the end of the third year, a final report and all data collected or reviewed during the Joint Study shall be made publicly available. And, the new study will be paid for by the state of Arkansas with said funds placed with the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission which will disperse them at direction from the Joint Study Committee.

As was the case when the first agreement was executed, I’ve found that there are those scenic rivers stakeholders who criticize this second agreement. To them, and for that matter everyone, I would say that neither the state of Arkansas nor the state of Oklahoma has clean hands on the issues. Regardless, I would argue that the Illinois River, Flint Creek and Barren Fork are cleaner than they were ten years ago. The second agreement demonstrates our continued willingness to work together and as long as we’re trying to get along, then Oklahoma Scenic Rivers benefit. If one of our two states should stop trying, then our scenic rivers will suffer; and, it’s paramount that Oklahoma not push so hard that the state of Arkansas is no longer willing to work with us.

Ed Fite is the administrator for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission administrator and Oklahoma Water Resources Board member.

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