Hearings wrap up on Buffalo River watershed plan

Posted: October 19, 2017 at 1:01 a.m.

JASPER -- Arkansas officials and a contractor held their final meeting last week asking stakeholders for input on how they should write a plan to conserve the area surrounding the state's most visited river.

The contractor, Little Rock-based FTN Associates, will compile about a year's worth of research and stakeholder input and issue a draft Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan within the next month, said Kent Thornton, a systems ecologist for FTN who has led four public meetings on the plan.

The Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan would identify ways in which landowners can voluntarily improve the environment surrounding the Buffalo. It would focus on actions that landowners not currently subject to regulatory oversight could take. The plan would not be regulatory, but it could be used by landowners to help get funding from a dwindling pot of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants.

The plan itself is funded with EPA grant money, announced last fall by Gov. Asa Hutchinson as a part of a push to discuss conservation of the Buffalo River after years of outcry over the state's permitting of the first large industrial hog farm in the river's watershed.

The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission hired FTN to produce the plan, which would be one of 14 the commission has for rivers across the state.

While some people have expressed interest in doing more for the Buffalo, some have said they think a watershed management plan would be a good start.

About 25 people attended the final stakeholder meeting Thursday, voicing their concerns about what can be addressed in the Buffalo River plan and how conservation programs that might be recommended in it would be funded.

One person asked if the plan could recommend that the state give $1 million annually toward conservation efforts that would then be matched using other funding sources.

Natural Resources Commission Deputy Director Ryan Benefield said the commission would not lobby the governor and that local funding would be key to implementing any conservation efforts in the area.

"We're not going to get this done through state funding alone," he said.

The EPA funding that the commission receives for such projects has decreased, and Benefield noted that there are 13 other watershed management plans calling for millions of dollars in conservation projects across Arkansas.

One attendee asked who advocates for the Buffalo.

"We're hoping that y'all do," Benefield said to some laughter in the Carroll Electric Community Room in Jasper.

He mentioned that local groups fund a large part of projects in the Illinois River watershed in Northwest Arkansas, then ask the commission for additional money, which it often gives.

"These projects are not necessarily done by government," he said. "It's really local groups that come together that decide they want to do a project ... and then we assist them."

So far, the watershed management plan process has identified several conservation practices and their expected impact on each of six critical subwatersheds. Those subwatersheds refer to the areas around six Buffalo tributaries within the Buffalo's watershed. They were selected as priorities in the plan based on their conditions using data through the end of 2015.

Those subwatersheds are Flatrock, Tomahawk, Calf, Bear, Brush and lower Big creeks.

Middle Big Creek, which many opponents of C&H Hog Farms wanted to be a subwatershed, did not finish in the top six in FTN's analysis, although Buffalo River Watershed Alliance President Gordon Watkins said he thinks it might have if data from 2016 and 2017 collected by state scientists had been included. Those data, he said, show higher nitrate and lower dissolved oxygen levels.

According to FTN Associates, the levels of nitrates and other substances has increased in those six Buffalo tributaries over the years because of wastewater treatment plants and nearby pastures. Closing the difference between the 2005-15 median levels and the 1985-94 median levels -- considered the target levels -- would require reductions of 32 percent to 70 percent in the six creeks.

Target E. coli levels would require reductions of 44 percent to 76 percent for four of the creeks.

FTN has identified possible reductions in nitrogen, coliform bacteria, sediment and phosphorus through prescribed animal grazing, stream buffers, pasture planting and management, and excluding animals from streams.

The estimated cost of those practices in just the Calf Creek watershed? About $3.1 million.

FTN also recommends greater planning; road maintenance; revegetation; prescribed burns; trail and streamside management; identifying failing wastewater treatment plants; continued monitoring of pollutants and trash; and studies of dissolved oxygen, sources of pollutants and other things. Some research has already shown that pollution in Mill Creek is coming from the Crooked Creek watershed, in addition to the Buffalo River watershed, Thornton said.

At the meeting, White River Waterkeeper Executive Director Jessie Green asked that FTN recommend robust data collection and education of the watershed's private well owners about what could be in their water. She also would like to see greater oversight of older septic tanks not subject to more recent requirements.

"We think there's a lot of potential for septic tank failure in the watershed," she said.

For Watkins, factoring wastewater treatment plants and hog farms into the plan would be ideal. But that's not possible, he said, because those facilities are already regulated through the permits they have from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

That's frustrating to him because of how much a large hog farm or wastewater treatment plants for two cities -- Jasper and Marshall -- can affect the Buffalo and its tributaries.

"I think it's kind of a shiny object," he said of the watershed management plan.

Still, he attended the planning meetings and thinks the plan will be beneficial.

"I think it'll be a good foundational document," he said.

The Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan will be open for stakeholder comment -- which means anyone can comment -- for about 30 days, Thornton said. Then, FTN will review and respond to the comments before finalizing the document.

For it to be an official watershed management plan, the EPA must approve of it, he said.

NW News on 10/19/2017