Panel on river outlines its goals

Priorities include tourism increase

Posted: February 3, 2018 at 2:36 a.m.

The state committee devoted to caring for the Buffalo River sent its first report to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson this week, outlining the priorities of the committee and the state agencies its members run.

The Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, created by Hutchinson after years of conflict over the permitting of a large hog farm in the river's watershed, is required to report its progress annually.

In its 10-page report submitted Tuesday, the committee laid out future objectives to increase tourism and expand the number of farms while also preserving and improving water quality. The report details more specific goals, including more testing of waters, more approved septic systems and more conservation programs and practices on farms, but it does not contain a framework for achieving those things.

The committee's rules and responsibilities explain it may establish subcommittees or working groups to meet its goals.

Hutchinson reviewed the report this week and said it indicated that a "baseline has been set for measuring the health of the watershed and setting priorities for the future."

"The Action Committee has brought people together from government to the agriculture community and to tourism, and we all agree on the importance of protecting the Buffalo River watershed while recognizing the importance and value of agriculture," he said in a statement sent to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Buffalo National River attracted nearly 1.8 million visitors in 2016.

The committee consists of the heads of seven state agencies: Becky Keogh of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality; Bruce Holland of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission; Wes Ward of the Arkansas Agriculture Department; Dr. Nathaniel Smith of the Arkansas Department of Health; Kane Webb of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism; Pat Fitts of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission; and Shelby Johnson of the Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office.

Game and Fish, and Geographic Information Systems are considered "partners" of the committee and not members.

One page of the report touted the drafting of the Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan, which concluded in January. The plan was prepared by FTN Associates for the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, which intends to submit it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this month for acceptance.

If the EPA accepts the plan, it could be used as a leveraging tool for people who desire to do conservation projects in the watershed, particularly in one of the six sub-watersheds identified in the plan as priorities.

The report mentioned several other state agency priorities and accomplishments:

• The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has committed $300,000 in the past two years to the Unpaved Roads Program, which is designed to tend to unpaved roads that often contribute gravel to nearby bodies of water. The commission intends to continue funding the program.

• The Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office developed a report on the roads within the watershed, which is published on the committee's website.

• Five of the agencies that have members in the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee serve on the Feral Hog Eradication Task Force, which seeks to reduce the number of feral hogs in the state and thus the amount of environmental crop damage caused by them. Those agencies are the Natural Resources Commission, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Health, the Department of Parks and Tourism, and the Game and Fish Commission.

• The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality also has created a tool for people to report nuisance algal blooms and has responded to reports of such blooms in the Buffalo River along with the National Park Service.

• The committee built a website that outlines its meetings, minutes, presentations, links to data repositories on watershed water quality and links to conservation programs for Buffalo River stakeholders.

• The Department of Health and the Natural Resources Commission are studying failing septic systems in the watershed.

• The Department of Environmental Quality spent $4,100 on a study of E. coli in Mill Creek, and the department and the U.S. Geological Survey are studying nutrient and bacteria in the creek's watershed. The agencies are each spending $86,000 on the study, with contributions of $3,250 each from the Department of Health, and the Game and Fish Commission. Mill Creek is one of the major tributaries to the Buffalo River.

David Peterson, president of the Ozark Society, said he thought many of the ideas from the committee were good ones, noting the Mill Creek study that will determine the animal sources of elements in the creek.

"That's a positive step," he said.

Peterson also said he liked the idea of spending money to improve unpaved roads, but that it was unclear whether the money would be used on roads in the Buffalo River's watershed. The success of efforts to contain feral hogs, which have plagued many states, or to address algae outbreaks remain to be seen, as well, he said.

"Those are not bad ideas," Peterson said. "The question is whether they will carry through."

Metro on 02/03/2018