MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

February 9, 2014

Biology professor to run river study

It will determine proper standard for phosphorus content

A professor who is considered an “expert and leader” in the field of developing numerical nutrient criteria for water bodies has accepted an offer to study the Illinois River.

All six members of the Scenic Rivers Joint Study Committee voted to tap Ryan S. King of Baylor University to carry out that task. Committee members were appointed by the governors of Arkansas and Oklahoma to oversee a study negotiated by the attorneys general of both states and ratified by various stakeholders.

King is an associate professor of biology. His work includes extensive research used to determine the impact of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen on surface water. King’s work has been used to examine stressor-response relationships in order to set numeric nutrient standards.

Ed Brocksmith, a founding member of Save the Illinois River, a citizens’ coalition dedicated to preserving the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake, said King’s credentials “look solid.” He said STIR representatives plan to watch closely the committee’s work and King’s study.

The study was authorized by a three-year agreement inked almost a year ago by attorneys general in Arkansas and Oklahoma and other stakeholders. The agreement extends commitments established in 2003 to phase in the 0.037 mg/L phosphorus standard for scenic rivers adopted in 2003.

The phosphorus standard was set to address the evident degradation of water quality within the Illinois River watershed. Stream overloading of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen promote vegetative growth, which depletes dissolved oxygen levels and reduces water quality.

A technical advisory group spent a year reviewing new scientific and technical evidence supporting the standard’s legitimacy before it was to be fully implemented in 2012. A minority report backed by two Arkansas agencies disputed the validity of the Oklahoma standard, setting the stage for protracted litigation that officials avoided by agreeing to conduct the stressor-response.

“We will be getting with him in March to iron out the work plan, and he should be on the ground and sampling before summer rolls around,” said Derek Smithee, the water quality division chief for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. “We have a short turnaround time, and we want to be able to capture the data we need this summer.”

Smithee, who shares his chairmanship of the joint study committee with University of Arkansas associate professor Brian Haggard, said King was selected from a group of seven individuals or companies that responded to a request for statements of qualifications. Committee members disqualified some who had been involved with litigation arising from interstate water quality disputes.

Once details of the study and work plan are in place, committee members will meet twice per year to assess the progress of the study. King’s findings, which will be used to determine whether the state’s phosphorus standard for scenic rivers is valid or needs to be changed, are expected to be presented toward the end of 2015 or early 2016.

Under the interstate agreement, parties from both sides of the state line that divides Arkansas and Oklahoma will abide by the findings of King’s study. Northwestern Arkansas entities that have challenged the legitimacy of Oklahoma’s scenic rivers phosphorus standards are financing the $600,000 study.

Ed Fite, the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission’s administrator, said he is impressed with the work performed by the joint study committee. Although committee members “have been vocal about their opinions,” Fite said, they have demonstrated a willingness to work together.

“Oklahoma and Arkansas have a history of prolonged distrust and suspicion that has resulted with litigation,” Fite said, referring to a lawsuit that targeted poultry production practices that many believe contributed to deteriorating water quality within the Illinois River watershed and others. “These six individuals have demonstrated to me they are taking this seriously” despite their differences of opinion.

Fite said he is confident the numeric nutrient criteria that will come from the stressor-response test “will be appropriate to protect the Illinois River in the near term.” Fite said that could change based upon the projected population growth and urbanization expected to occur within the watershed during the next two or three decades.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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