Let OWRB know your view: New phosphorus rules set for scenic rivers

Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation

Oklahomans have one month to let the Oklahoma Water Resources Board know what they think of proposed new criteria to monitor phosphorus pollution in three scenic rivers.

Comments on the future for the protected Flint Creek, Barren Fork Creek and the Upper Illinois River are due by February 15.

OWRB held three webinars on the proposals in September and October and a final online hearing for oral comments in early January. Stakeholders requested the one-month extension for public comments due to the coronavirus pandemic, OWRB officials said.

The proposed changes

Up for discussion are Water Quality Criterion set under the board’s Chapter 45 Proposed Rules and a new water quality standard measurement called “critical condition” under Chapter 46 Proposed Rules.

The two-state Scenic Rivers Joint Study Committee established in 2013 and a resulting Memorandum of Agreement signed by the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment and Arkansas counterparts in November 2018 accepted a 0.037 parts per million (milligram per liter) standard and directed creation of the new rules.

Oklahoma first adopted the 0.037 ppm standard in 2002. It was reinforced by a two-year Baylor University study completed in 2016 that determined 0.037 ppm was indeed suitable to maintain condition of the rivers for their legally defined uses for public water, aquatic life, aesthetics, body contact recreation and agriculture uses.

The 2018 joint agreement directed the OWRB, along with its Arkansas counterpart, to work cooperatively with other state, federal and tribal stakeholders to develop the new criterion.

Proposed Chapter 45 rules set the new 0.037 ppm criteria and changes current rules set at a 30-day geometric mean and frequency never to exceed 0.037 ppm to the same load monitored on a rolling 6-month average with no more than one exceedance per year and no more than three exceedances in a five-year period.

Essentially, instead of tracking many monthly readings by location with zero tolerance, the standard adopts a rolling average over the length of the stream with a minimum number of allowed excursions beyond the set standard.

Phosphorus background

While 20 years of data show declining phosphorus levels in the streams, the river and creeks continue to regularly violate that agreed-upon 0.037 level and they are listed under the Federal Clean Water Act as impaired waters, according to OWRB Water Quality Standards Environmental Program Manager Rebecca Veiga-Nascimento.

Application of the new standard, based on testing during an 18-month development period, would not immediately change that status but would serve to set an achievable target for future improvements, she said.

Veiga-Nascimento explained in webinars that the joint agreement asked for “a six-month average total phosphorus level not to exceeed 0.035 milligrams per liter based on water samples collected during critical conditions…” and OWRB translated that request into the proposed regulation.

The proposed critical condition measurement is a new term for measuring water quality standards in Oklahoma, which heightens its importance.

It relies on permanent U.S. Geological Survey hydrology gages and continuous monitoring to determine daily average flow based on a sliding scale. Critical condition measurements would be those taken when the river flow level is 55 percent or greater of the total daily average flow, according to the proposal.

To satisfy the dual-state agreement the 55-percent flow records represent, “conditions where surface runoff is not the dominant influence of the total flow and stream ecosystem processes,” she said.

In layman’s terms it boils down to consistently measuring the river at a level that represents the average baseline health of the river whether during periods of higher flow or lower flow.

Tenkiller Lake concerns aired

Some critics of the plan expressed concern in meetings that monitoring the river at a middle-of-the-road average would ignore high-water events known to wash in agriculture and other fertilizer applications that collect downstream in Lake Tenkiller.

Save The Illinois River founder Ed Brocksmith said the rules are imperfect but added that the OWRB appears to have done as well as it could, given the parameters set by the 2018  Memorandum of Agreement.

In the January meeting Brocksmith emphasized his organization advocates for the health of the streams but caution that concern extends to the lower river and Lake Tenkiller as well. Trout Unlimited representatives echoed those same concerns at the meeting.

Veiga-Nascimento said gage readings at high stream levels can be unreliable (but nonetheless will be documented) and the proposed criterion needed documentation that would be scientifically grounded, evenhanded, and manageable over the long term.

A “zero allowance” for exceeding the 0.037 ppm standard would not be practical, according to Veiga-Nascimento, particularly when it is known that streams can handle some higher pollutant load events without issue. That is why allowing the 0.037 ppm level to be exceeded not more than once a year and not more than three times in a five-year period, makes regulatory sense, she said.

“Programs need some flexibility,” Veiga-Nascimento said. “This provides some flexibility while minimizing risk to beneficial use.”

The most commonly voiced public concerns have centered on whether the standard will truly improve water quality and if the monitoring plan ignores storm runoff that loads up Tenkiller Lake downstream, she said.

Scientists are confident the new standard will serve to improve water quality in the scenic rivers and that lower reaches can benefit in turn, but the current rules under discussion do not directly involve those lower reaches, Veiga-Nascimento said.

“This process only applies to the scenic rivers reaches,” she said. “A reduction of phosphorus loading in the upper river will benefit the lake, but the lake already is protected by its own water quality standards.”

She acknowledged the OWRB views the watershed as a whole and that the hydrology is certainly all part of a connected system of surface and ground waters, but she said the upper river, lake and lower river are different water bodies, each with different hydrologic and chemical properties that require different sets of regulations.

Veiga-Nascimento said the Lower Illinois does not have a permanent monitoring station but that is something the public could advocate for in the future, particularly with demonstration that the river is heavily used for fishing and other types of recreation.

“It’s not a section of the river that has historically received a lot of attention and clearly people want it to,” she said.

Learn more and comment

People can learn more of the details of the new rules by watching the recorded OWRB webinars held in September and October at owrb.ok.gov.

Written comments must be received by OWRB no later than 5 p.m. on Feb. 15 electronically at IRTPcriteria@owrb.ok.gov or rebecca.veiga@owrb.ok.gov.

Written comments should be submitted by mail to the following address:

Oklahoma Water Resources Board

ATTN: Rebecca Veiga     

3800 North Classen Blvd.

Oklahoma City, OK 73118

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