By TIM TALLEY
OKLAHOMA CITY —
The quality of water in the Illinois River will be the focus of a comprehensive, three-year study under an agreement announced Wednesday by officials in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The agreement was reached following months of negotiations between the two states concerning phosphorus limits in parts of the river that travels from Arkansas through 100 miles of eastern Oklahoma, according to separate statements by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
The agreement extends a similar pact reached in 2003 after Oklahoma established standards for allowable levels of phosphorus released into the Illinois River and other scenic rivers from water treatment plants, farming operations and other sites that deposit excess levels of phosphorus into the river before it leaves Arkansas.
Oklahoma filed a lawsuit in 2005 against Arkansas poultry companies that alleged poultry waste had damaged portions of the Illinois River watershed in northeastern Oklahoma, allowing bacteria to be carried into lakes and streams popular with boaters and campers. The lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in Tulsa.
“Generations of Oklahomans have enjoyed the Illinois River for hunting, fishing, camping and floating, and their safety and enjoyment of the river is paramount,” Pruitt said. “This agreement ensures that the progress we’ve made will continue, and that the river remains a recreation destination for future generations.”
The 2003 agreement required Arkansas to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and limit other discharges in the watershed. McDaniel said extending the new agreement eliminates the potential for costly litigation over Oklahoma’s phosphorous standards in the watershed — standards Arkansas has maintained are unattainable.
“Arkansas has worked diligently to reduce phosphorus concentrations in the Illinois River watershed over the last decade, and we will continue to do so,” McDaniel said. “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.”
The study, known as a stressor response study, will determine the amount of phosphorus that can be contained within the watershed without negatively impacting water quality. It will use U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved methods that ensure scientifically reliable data collection and analysis.
A six-member committee will oversee the study and decide who will conduct it. Arkansas is responsible for securing the estimated $600,000 the study is expected to cost. The funds will be administered by the Arkansas-Oklahoma Arkansas River Compact Commission, which includes representatives from both states.
Officials from both states have agreed to be bound by the study’s findings. Oklahoma’s phosphorous standard will remain in effect while the study is conducted.
The EPA is conducting a separate study that will establish permit limits for all dischargers in the Illinois River watershed.