Planning group airs Illinois River water worries

Northwest Arkansas population growth adds to watershed pollution challenges

The Illinois River flows under an abandoned railroad trestle near Watts at the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. Photo by Kelly J Bostian / KJBOutdoors

For the CCOF

SILOAM SPRINGS, Ark.—Millions of chickens and poultry litter have long been the focus of Oklahomans concerned about Illinois River water quality, but it faces another growing threat.

Millions of people.

Illinois River Watershed Partnership Executive Director Leif Kindberg listed the concern Tuesday for about 35 people at the first public meeting to revamp the 10-year-old Illinois River Watershed Management Plan. A like number tuned in via Zoom.

Kindberg, along with Arkansas Natural Resources Commission Water Quality Division Manager Tate Wentz, Oklahoma Conservation Commission Water Quality Division Director Shanon Phillips, and water resources engineer Philip Massirer of FTN Associates took a couple of hours to lay out where voluntary efforts to protect the river have been, and some main challenges to tackle under the new plan.

Kindberg spelled out two major changes in the watershed in the past 10 years and expected in the 10 years to come that set priorities none can ignore.

The population of some northwest Arkansas has grown more than 20% in the past decade and the population as a whole is expected to double, with 1 million more souls, by 2045.

Impervious surfaces

Population growth and development “has had significant implications on land cover,” Kindberg said.

More rooftops, driveways, and streets mean more of what is known as “impervious surface cover” where rainfall is concerned.

Rainfall the past decade has averaged 10.5 inches over the historical average he said. That led to higher flows in the river, more flash flooding, erosion, debris dams, and more turbidity, pollution, and stream bank loss.

He said that areas of northwest Arkansas that include 50-to-79% impervious surfaces nearly doubled with a 935 increase between 2001 and 2019. Areas covered 80-100% with impervious surfaces increased by 78% over the same timeframe.

“We’ve got a rapidly changing watershed that is that is becoming, particularly in the headwaters, significantly impervious,” he said. “ That has real implications in terms of how we move forward with management considerations and management of the watershed over the next 10 years or so and beyond.”

Wentz said that easily 70 percent of the correspondence he receives from Arkansas landowners along the river these days includes inquiries about stream bank erosion and how to stop it.

Top priorities

Those factors led Kindberg to list among priorities for the new 10-year plan a focus on stormwater and nonpoint source pollution (when rainfall carries pollutants into rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakes). Priorities should include reducing total phosphorous levels at the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line, reducing bacteria and sediment, incentivizing sewage system improvements, establishing or protecting riparian buffer zones, and integrating the water quality monitoring networks of the two states, he said.

The lists and concerns of officials at the meeting were just a kick-off, however. Creating the new plan will take 12 to 16 months and will include a series of public meetings for stakeholders to list their own priorities. A schedule of meeting times and agendas for 2023 is expected to be issued before the New Year. The next public meeting will take place sometime in January.

Phillips started her presentation by asking Arkansans and Oklahomans in the room to stand, then encouraged participation from all corners.

“What I would challenge all of us going forward is, we need to start thinking about ourselves as representing the Illinois River watershed instead of each state,” Phillips said.

Public involvement is key

Thirty years working in the watershed has shown her that the more individuals come together on challenges facing the watershed—even when they disagree—the more they find in common and the more progress is made, she said.

Kindberg and Phillips listed multiple programs and millions of dollars worth of improvement projects carried out in the watershed over the past 20 years, though much of the watershed remains listed as threatened or impaired under federal 303(d) guidelines that list whether water is suitable for drinking or human contact.

The program leaders laid out lists of hundreds of miles of riparian habitat recovery, hundreds of miles of fencing, and other agriculture projects to reduce impacts from livestock not only along the river and creeks but connected drainages of all sizes. Improved nutrient management plans have helped, as have poultry litter export programs, stormwater management, and millions of dollars allocated to conservation easements and other projects—including replacing and repairing hundreds of residential septic tanks with grants and no-interest loans.

Both youth and adult education programs and outreach have been vital because programs that come with the watershed plan require voluntary compliance, Phillips said. Stakeholders on the agriculture and business sides of the equation need to know programs are not overly burdensome and may actually improve operations. They need to see that adopting the practices will keep their bankers just as happy as the stream banks.

Involvement with stakeholders, from avid floaters and fishers to municipalities and industrial interests was key in past management plan efforts and will be again, Phillips said.

“We’re going to be most effective and people will be most helpful if they’re here in person to talk about their recommendations,” she said. “They’re welcome to contact us about those recommendations but the reason that we all come together… is because we come to better resolutions when we can talk them out. So, if you know people who are concerned about things that are going on in the watershed, or things they see, please encourage them to get involved in this process.”

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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