MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

February 25, 2013

Illinois River subject for new study

Deal authorizing it deters lawsuit by Arkansas parties

— Officials have inked a three-year agreement that opens the door to a new study designed to examine phosphorus loading of the Illinois River.

The agreement, which was met with some skepticism, extends commitments established in 2003. Proponents of the agreement said it avoids protracted litigation regarding Oklahoma’s numeric phosphorus standards for its scenic rivers.

The 0.037 mg/L standard adopted in 2003 was upheld this past year after a technical advisory group spent a year reviewing new scientific and technical evidence supporting its legitimacy. A minority report backed by two Arkansas agencies disputed the validity of the state’s standard, setting the stage for a lawsuit. None has been filed.

The 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.

Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commissioner Ed Fite, one of 10 co-signers of the agreement, said it sidesteps the potential for a lawsuit. Parties representing the interests of both states also agreed to be bound by the study’s findings, regardless of the outcome, he said.

Staff members in the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office say the study “could result in a standard stricter than the current requirements.” The 0.037 mg/L standard, which went into full effect July 1, will remain while researchers complete the new study and will pose no delays to federal efforts to establish pollution limits for the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake.

“This is important, and people need to realize that Arkansas, Oklahoma and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are all trying to get along together,” Fite said. “As long as the three of us are trying to work together, the six scenic rivers in Oklahoma will benefit — from my point of view, the Illinois River is cleaner than it was 10 years ago.”

The second statement of joint principles also satisfies the demands of a northwest Arkansas coalition committed to finding funds needed to complete the stressor-response study. Mike Malone, the chief executive officer and president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said a year ago that the study was needed to bring “sound science” to the controversy.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the agreement was hammered out after months of negotiations involving the top attorneys and environmental officials representing both states. A statement released by Pruitt’s office said the agreement “provides for a new ‘best science’ study of the phosphorus load for the river with both states, for the first time, agreeing to be bound by the outcome.”

Pruitt said in a media release: “Generations of Oklahomans have enjoyed the Illinois River for hunting, fishing, camping and floating, and their safety and enjoyment of the river is paramount. This agreement ensures that the progress we’ve made will continue and that the river remains a recreation destination for future generations.”

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said officials in his state are committed to improving water quality within the Illinois River watershed. He said the results of the new study will “guide farmers, businesses and municipalities in northwest Arkansas in their future planning, as both Arkansas and Oklahoma remain committed to improving water quality.”

The study will be conducted under EPA-approved testing methods that ensure scientifically reliable data collection and analysis. Fite said reports of the study’s progress will be published each year, providing stakeholders an opportunity to comment.

The study will be funded by Arkansas and managed by a committee of six people, with three each appointed by the governors of Oklahoma and Arkansas. The study itself will be conducted by a third-party group that has no ties to businesses in either state.

Although state officials lauded the agreement, representatives of Save the Illinois River, a Tahlequah-based citizen coalition dedicated to protecting the river, expressed guarded optimism.

STIR representatives met with Pruitt to share their concerns. They described the discussion as “candid and open.”

Representatives of STIR, which played an instrumental role in a U.S. Supreme Court case that established the authority of downstream states to set and enforce water quality standards, said the agreement “is not perfect” but does “protect Oklahoma’s interests.”

“Pruitt promised STIR and other watershed stakeholders that doors to his office would be open and that he wanted stakeholder input about Illinois River protection,” said STIR’s co-founder Ed Brocksmith, noting initial concerns about a lack of communication leading up to the signing of the agreement. “STIR still is concerned about the type of water quality testing that Arkansas wishes to use, and we will provide information from our experts about these tests to ... Pruitt and his staff.”

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

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