By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Efforts to curb nonpoint source pollution in Oklahoma’s waterways outpaced those in all other states in 2012, according to data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Data show conservation efforts of landowners, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and its local districts resulted in a more than 2.44 million pound reduction of phosphorus entering state’s streams, rivers and lakes. Best management practices also reduced nitrogen loading by an estimated 2.7 million pounds and sedimentation by 10,000 tons.
Stream overloading of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen promote vegetative growth, which depletes dissolved oxygen levels and reduces water quality. Nutrient loading from nonpoint source pollution — from urban and agricultural activities — has threatened the Illinois River and other sensitive watersheds for decades.
Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, said figures used to calculate nutrient-load reductions reflect a combination of sampling results and estimates expected to be achieved by the best management practices implemented.
News of the state’s strong showing was announced Thursday from during a news conference at the state Capitol attended by state Agriculture Secretary Jim Reese, conservation officials and lawmakers. Officials said 2012 was the second consecutive year Oklahoma led the nation in efforts to reduce nonpoint source pollutants and the fourth year to be among the top 10.
Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts President Kim Farber said the state’s continuing efforts “is a testimony to the success of the dedicated work done by farmers, ranchers and other landowners in partnership” with state and federal agencies.
“This success shows what can happen when we work together, respect individuals’ private property rights and when the State and Federal Governments give landowners the financial and technical assistance they need to make changes,” Farber said in a media release. “Locally led, voluntary conservation works.”
Pope said the reduction in nutrients entering the state’s waterways from nonpoint sources highlights the need for locally led incentive-based programs.
“We’re not only controlling pollution, but we are also taking into consideration the financial situation of the local landowner,” Pope said. “This is the same kind of approach we used to tame the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and these numbers show it’s working again in the water quality area.”
Ed Fite, administrator of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said good things are happening as a result of the best management practices.
“It’s been a team effort, and there are so many positive things going on,” said Fite, who also serves as a member of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. “These numbers defend that. When you look at the Illinois River and the phosphorus numbers, they are down.”
Fite said technological advances in conservation and water management “have shown us what we have done to ourselves, and we are learning how to fix that.”
Thursday’s announcement comes in the wake of a comprehensive survey of the nation’s streams and rivers released in May that concluded those water bodies “are under significant pressure.” The EPA survey found about 55 percent of the nation’s waterways “are in poor condition for aquatic life.”
Data for the 2008-2009 National Rivers and Stream Assessment, which reflects the most recent data available, was collected from about 2,000 sites across the country. EPA, state and university scientists analyzed the data.
Key findings included excessive levels of nitrogen in 27 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams and high levels of phosphorus in 40 percent. The report also shows streams and rivers face increased risks because of decreased vegetation cover, which makes them more vulnerable to flooding, erosion and pollution.
Pope said the locally led best management practices funded by EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture funds are designed to address those problems. Best management practices include poultry litter removal programs, riparian buffers, no-till farming practices and “a whole suite of things.”
In addition to the successes seen through best management practices, Fite said educational efforts are starting to change behaviors.
“You are not going to change attitudes overnight,” Fite said. “But what is going on now through these outreach efforts, we are going to see a completely different ethic among today’s young people.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.