Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel announced in Fayetteville today an agreement between Oklahoma and Arkansas officials to conduct a study of phosphorus concentrations in the Illinois River Watershed.
The agreement, signed in February, avoids the possibility of costly lawsuits over Oklahoma's regulations on phosphorus levels in the watershed. Arkansas has held the position that the standard is unattainable.
McDaniel and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt both signed the "Second Statement of Joint Principals and Actions" which will outline how the water quality study will proceed.
"For the better part of three decades there has been a dispute between Northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma about how best to manage our natural resources," McDaniel says.
"Phosphorous is one of those nutrients that, a little bit is good," says Brian Haggard, Director of the Arkansas Water Resources Center. "It does stimulate algal growth and it can make a aquatic system a stream a river or lake a little bit productive."
But too much algae is a problem, and when Oklahoma discovered high levels in the 1980s, they traced it back to Northwest Arkansas.
"The sources of phosphorous to the Illinois River include both municipal waste water treatment plants from the cities of Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers and some smaller cities in Arkansas and Oklahoma, as well as runoff from urban and agricultural landscapes," Haggard says. "Obviously, poultry production is one of the largest agricultural factors in Arkansas."
In a lawsuit that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, justices ruled the downstream state's water quality laws must be met, and Arkansas responded.
"Hundreds of millions have been spent over the last ten years," McDaniel says. "It is truly an environmental success story to see the phosphorous levels that have dropped throughout the watershed."
But businesses and cities can't meet the limit any time soon, and David Jurgens, Utilities Director for the city of Fayetteville, says it was based on a study using bad data.
"It evaluated ten streams that were all pristine," Jurgens says. "None of them had any kind of development compared to what the Illinois River had, and they were all much smaller."
The new agreement, signed in February, calls for another study on the acceptable level of phosphorous, and both states have agreed to be bound by the results.
"We are setting the standard on how to be responsible in a growing area environmentally," he says. "We want to continue to do that... The results of this 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. I applaud Attorney General Pruitt and officials in Oklahoma for working together with us on this important issue."
Using EPA- approved testing methods, the "stressor response study" will determine the amount of phosphorous that can be contained within the watershed without negatively impacting the quality of the water.
A committee of six will oversee the study, three of whom will be chosen by Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe and three by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin.
Arkansas is expected to secure the funding for the study, estimated at $600,000. The funds will be administered by joint Arkansas River Commission with representatives from both states.
The agreement is called the second statement because of an initial Statement of Joint Principals and Actions agreement that was signed by both states in 2003. The second statement is a continuation of the initial statement.