Testing the waters: Group sets new pollution monitoring standards for Spring Creek

Spring Creek Coalition volunteer Sandy Whitekiller pulls a water sample from Spring Creek on April 22. KELLY BOSTIAN/KJBOutdoors

For the CCOF

KANSAS — The clear water of Spring Creek, often called the most pristine Ozark stream in Oklahoma, is both puzzling and deceptive.

Standing on a county road southwest of the little town of Kansas with seven other coalition volunteers, Beth Rooney spelled out the deception clearly. “People swim in it and they have no idea just how much bacteria there is,” she said.

Near its headwaters the spring-fed stream was no more than 20 feet wide where it flowed through its first road culverts at the start of its winding 35-mile route down to Fort Gibson Lake. A fence crossed the stream parallel of the county right-of-way. Cattle walked through the shallow riffles and grazed along its banks upstream.

Cattle in the stream, chicken litter used as fertilizer on nearby fields, the rural sewage-treatment plants in the watershed at Oaks and Kansas, sorting out what pollutes a stream, and to what degree, is no simple matter.

So the volunteers come to the creek monthly armed with a $1,700 digital water-sampling meter, sterilized collection bottles, surgical gloves and strict standard operating procedures. They spend $1,050 a month on lab work that meets federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The coalition is stepping in where it believes state agencies should have long ago. The goal is to establish a scientific baseline for water quality in this cherished creek and maybe create a model for people to use on other Oklahoma waterways while they’re at it. Maybe the information can be used to correct problems. If need be it could be used in a court of law.

“We want to establish a year’s worth of data as a baseline,” Rooney said. “We’d like to go longer but we don’t have enough money for that. We hope to do it every other month, something like that after this, and to try to locate the (pollution) sources. Right now we’re just establishing that there is a problem.”

Indeed the group has seen E coli bacteria levels far above what agencies would deem suitable for swimming and boating areas. They’ve noted elevated levels of nitrogen that likely contribute to the increasing amounts of algae in the stream. They’ve watched nutrient levels rise in the creek when rainfall followed chicken litter applications on nearby fields. The nutrients they saw in the data, the fertilizer they smelled in the air.

“When they spread fertilizer nearby and then it rained the readings just shot up,” said Bill Chambers, vice president of the group and a 40-year resident of the area.

Rhett Finley and Sandy Whitekiller take samples from Spring Creek a little over a mile from its headwaters near Kansas.

“When I first saw this creek my jaw dropped,” he said. “A lot of this is privately owned so a lot of people don’t know about this creek but when they see it they can’t believe it’s in Oklahoma… It has changed, we see the algae and the erosion, but it’s still more beautiful than people can imagine.”

The crew’s latest sampling started after 9 a.m. on April 22, and they stood on the county road near Kansas before noon. It was the last of their six established sampling spots spread out along the length of the creek. Each stop involves taking a set of photographs, filling several sterilized containers that are placed in coolers bound for certified labs, and using the digital probe to measure temperature, pH level, dissolved oxygen and conductivity. They have gained speed with practice, Chambers said.

On Earth Day they decided it was such a beautiful day they would hold their usual debriefing meeting right there on the road. The spot itself said much about the project.

A man who lives on the downstream side of the road stopped by in his ATV and the group visited about their project and the stream. He told them he had lived there 50 years and the water hadn’t changed much that he could see. The stream was a little wider now, he said. It used to be almost choked full with watercress but he said he hasn’t seen the water plants in years. Wild watercress grows in fast moving shallow water streams and is one indicator of a clean, healthy waterway.

Amaiya Bearpaw notes readings from a digital monitor held by Sandy Whitekiller on Spring Creek April 22. KELLY BOSTIAN/KJBOutdoors

Rooney said the upper stretches have shown the highest concentrations of E coli and enterococcus bacteria and phosphorous. The owner of the land upstream from the road is going to grant the group access to test the water above his property. She told him about the elevated bacteria levels and he said he didn’t believe it was due to his cattle but the city sewage treatment plant upstream at Kansas, she said.

Special as the spring-fed creek may be, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board has just one monitoring point on the stream, roughly at the midpoint between Kansas and Fort Gibson Lake. Volunteers with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission’s Blue Thumb citizen science program also monitor some areas and conduct stream-side youth education programs, but their samplings involve basic tailgate kit tests.

The coalition has had one environmental pro among their ranks this past year, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic. Rhett Finley of Broken Arrow joined the group when the pandemic kept him home from his work offshore in California as an environmental consultant.

“One thing about this is the procedures are all backed up by the Water Keeper Alliance and they have a hand in a lot of freshwater conservation efforts internationally,” he said. “They work really close with us guiding us through the process to make sure we are following the procedures and they are helping to interpret the data we are collecting. They are very knowledgeable.”

The spring fed Oklahoma creek is a far cry from the Pacific Coast but all waters have their lessons to teach, he said.

“Freshwater systems, I’ve come to find, are one of the most fragile ecosystems out there,” he said. “You change one aspect of it and it all goes downhill quickly.”

Kelly Bostian is a conservation communications professional working with the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To support Kelly’s work please consider making a tax deductible donation at https://www.oklahomaconservation.org

Spring Creek in northeast Oklahoma near Peggs. KELLY BOSTIAN/KJBOutdoors

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