MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Columns

March 25, 2010

Oklahoma phosphorus limit on Illinois River a viable number

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched a two-year study of Illinois River water pollution. 

The total maximum daily load (TMDL) study is expected to set limits for pollutants that hurt the river’s water quality, safety, and recreational value. Wisely, EPA will approach the study by looking at the entire watershed, not at the singular interests of Arkansas or Oklahoma. 

Phosphorus most certainly will be an object of any TMDLs for the Illinois River watershed.  From 2000 to 2004, it’s estimated that between 391,000 to 712,000 pounds of phosphorous entered Tenkiller Lake. Phosphorus does not disappear and is recycled from lake sediments for use over and over by algae.

If you will kindly indulge a comparison to a crime scene investigation on a popular television show, you might think of a TMDL study as “CSI: Illinois River.” Imagine forensic investigators pouring over DNA evidence and spraying luminol up and down the Illinois River, setting the entire watershed aglow.  The telltale bright green, which indicates blood on TV, will instead point to evidence of phosphorus, the nutrient that promotes the growth of algae. In great amounts, algae degrade water clarity, rob fish of oxygen, and cause taste and odor problems. Some algae can even be toxic to humans, pets and livestock.

Complicating this crime scene is the fact that investigators in Arkansas and Oklahoma are not looking in the same box of evidence. Oklahoma water quality agencies conduct tests at normal, base flow, river conditions as well as during storm events called peak flow. Arkansas abandoned this type of testing, opting instead to test only at base flow conditions. This explains why phosphorus levels are several times greater at Watts, on our border, than they are just upstream in Arkansas.

Eliminating peak flow testing ignores phosphorus carried from fields, yards and parking lots by stormwater runoff. Runoff accounts for an estimated 78 percent of the phosphorus load entering Lake Tenkiller. The bulk of phosphorus in runoff is from animal feeding operations and in our region, this means chicken and cattle manure spread on pastures surrounding poultry farms. 

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