ADEQ releases draft plan for troubled Arkansas water resources, seeks public comment

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 1,121 views 

The state Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) on Thursday (July 26) released a proposed list of impaired natural water bodies in Arkansas that will be targeted by U.S. environmental officials for restoration and further study over the next two years.

This year, according to the proposed 303 (d) list made available by ADEQ officials, key watersheds on the Illinois and Buffalo Rivers were identified as so-called Category 4b because alternative pollution control strategies are needed to bring these waterbodies into federal attainment. According to ADEQ officials, water-quality data from stream and lake sampling sites were considered during the development of the proposed 2018 list. The evaluated water-quality data were collected by multiple entities including ADEQ, other state, federal, and local government agencies, and private entities in Arkansas and from surrounding states.

“Arkansas is home to significant, high-quality water resources, and has advanced state-led watershed improvement initiatives. As ADEQ works with Arkansans to protect and enhance these waters, the proposed 2018 303(d) List is a key tool for setting priorities for additional, scientific studies and resources, including funds, to provide the biggest impact on water quality in Arkansas,” said ADED Director Becky Keogh. “The proposed 2018 303(d) List we release today represents the culmination of months of work by ADEQ staff in compiling and analyzing a wealth of accepted data from samples taken by ADEQ and multiple sources across the state.”

Under the nation’s Clean Water Act, Arkansas and all other states are required every two years to submit a report to the EPA on the quality of water in the state. Following the release of ADEQ’s draft plan, the state environmental officials will seek public comment over the next 45 days. An updated plan will be presented again to the public at an Aug. 17 hearing, and feedback and input from that meeting will also be added to the draft plan.

“Once we receive all the comments, the department will take those in consideration and result those and ultimately develop a final proposal that will go to the EPA,” said Caleb Osborne, ADEQ’s association director of water quality. “The goal is for the EPA to have an approval in approximately 60 to 90 days. Historically, that hasn’t always happened, but we have been in communication with them and they know we are developing our list and they anticipate it coming soon.”

In the six-page proposed 2018 list released Thursday, the Illinois River watershed has seven assessment areas that were identified as impaired for pathogens for the 2018 listing cycle, according to data collected by ADEQ, the Arkansas Water Resources Center, the United States Geological Survey, and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, officials said.

In the Buffalo River watershed, four problem areas were identified as impaired, including three for bacteria and one for dissolved oxygen. Of the assessment area with bacterial problems, two exceeded federal limits for E coli.

Under EPA guidelines, Arkansas’ assessments are formatted to reflect EPA’s most updated reporting guidance, which suggests placing Assessment Units, or AUs, into one of five categories. For example, AUs supporting all water-quality criteria and designated uses will be placed in Category 1. Category 2 waters are defined as AUs where available data/or information indicate that some, but not all, designated uses are supported. This category is rarely used by states.

AUs lacking enough data to decide are placed in Category 3. Those assessed as not supporting all water-quality criteria and designated uses will be placed in Category 4 or Category 5. For the 2018 assessment cycle, ADEQ had proposed to include 27 of the 45 deferred pollutant pairs in Category 1, three in Category 1b, seven in Category 3, and eight in Category 5.

For those watersheds listed in Category 5, which are impaired or threatened by pollutant for one or more designated uses, it will be necessary for state environmental regulators to develop a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL. In this year’s impairment list, the eight water bodies that landed in Category 5 include the St. Francis River, Ten Mile Bayou, Caney Creek, Second Creek, L’ Anguille River, First Creek, Prairie Creek and Little River.

For the Illinois and Buffalo River waters in Category 4b, ADEQ proposes to develop management solutions that will in the attainment of the water-quality standard. Putting those watersheds in the lesser category will allow officials to take advantage of state resources and collaboration to come up with a solution without federal intervention, said Osborne, adding that watershed management plans are recognized by EPA as comparable, state-led approaches expected to result in the attainment of water-quality standards.

“It’s an opportunity for us to leverage existing state efforts and state actions that are out there that will drive these water quality improvements in a way that is a state-led, more efficient, and we believe a more efficient way than if we went down and placed them in (other) categories and went through the development of stringent regulatory mechanisms like a TMDL, which is a load restriction,” said Osborne.

The ADEQ water quality expert said Arkansas already uses a state-led collaborative approach with the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee (BBRAC). That group was established in September 2016 at the request of Gov. Asa Hutchinson to create for a statewide plan for protecting natural resources within the Buffalo National River Watershed by identifying and addressing potential problems. The group was part of a response to concerns about a large hog farm that was permitted by state officials to be located in the Buffalo River watershed.

Hutchinson has directed five state agencies to develop an Arkansas-led approach to identify and address potential issues of common concern in the watershed. A key priority of BBRAC was to initiate the development of a Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan. The nine-element watershed management plan was developed for the Buffalo River Watershed, and the final plan was submitted and accepted by EPA in last month.

On July 2017, the EPA approved Arkansas’s 2016 303(d) list of water sources. At the same time, EPA deferred action on 45 potential pollutant pairs not included on Arkansas’s list. EPA agreed to continued review of all existing and readily available water-quality data and to continue discussion with ADEQ regarding these pollutant pairs.

Despite the EPA’s approval of ADEQ’s 2016 plan a year ago, several groups in Oklahoma were not pleased that the two tributaries to the Illinois River – Spring Creek and Osage Creek – were allowed to be reclassified as Category 4b from Category 5.

“We just sent a letter to the EPA protesting the (ADEQ’s) 2016 list,” said Ed Brocksmith, secretary-treasurer and co-founder of Save the Illinois River (STIR) in Tahlequah, Okla. Brocksmith said his group had not seen the ADEQ’s 2018 plans, but has lodged a protest with the EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas to re-evaluate concerns about polluted Arkansas water flowing into pristine Oklahoma watersheds.

In its recent letter to the EPA regional office, the Oklahoma group said some water quality regulators in Oklahoma have long felt federal environmental regulators were partial to Arkansas.

“Not only has EPA allowed Arkansas to evade TMDLs for these water bodies, EPA refused to do TMDLs for the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake instead kicking the task back to Arkansas and Oklahoma which have neglected to perform TMDLs for decades,” the STIR letter stated. “In short, it appears that EPA has shafted Oklahoma twice, three times if you consider EPA’s approval of Fayetteville’s sewage treatment plant discharging to the Illinois River back in the 1980’s.”

The Illinois River originates in the headwaters near Hogeye, 15 miles southwest of Fayetteville. The river flows westerly crossing the Ozarks into Oklahoma five miles south of Siloam Springs, near Watts, Oklahoma. The river continues southwesterly in Oklahoma to Lake Tenkiller.

Osborne said ADEQ officials have communicated and worked collaboratively with Oklahoma environmental regulators and policymakers on the Illinois to address some of the concerns and issues expressed by STIR and other groups.

“We are engaged in that process and have regular communications and we feel like we are moving in the right direction and have some beneficial coordination there,” he said. “We will discuss our draft proposal with our peers in other states and Oklahoma that have an interest in this. And we will work through that with them and it’s another item that EPA is involved in and is aware of those discussions.”

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