A draft of the Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan is complete.
The plan, commissioned by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, makes numerous recommendations for reducing the amount of pollutants that end up in streams in the watershed. Recommendations include monitoring water quality, conducting special studies, providing education and outreach for visitors and residents, and implementing management strategies.
A watershed is an area surrounding a body of water that eventually drains into the body of water. Stream bank erosion can cause pollutants from the soil to enter bodies of water.
"In Arkansas, that's a big issue in just about every watershed," said Allen Brown, program coordinator in the nonpoint source pollution management section of the commission.
The draft plan is the latest measure taken toward preserving and cleaning up the Buffalo River after years of concern over C&H Hog Farms, the large concentrated animal-feeding operation located on Big Creek about 6 miles from where it meets the Buffalo.
Opponents of the hog farm have said it poses an environmental risk to the Buffalo River, the country's first national scenic river. It attracted nearly 1.8 million visitors in 2016.
People who live in the area also have identified other concerns, including erosion, gravel in the river, leaking septic tanks and feral hogs.
Funds for the management plan came from a $107,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The plan is a part of the state's larger Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee -- a committee created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that comprises five state agencies and will include public meetings and stakeholder input.
The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission held four meetings in Marshall and Jasper to take input on the plan, and it relied on stakeholders to provide perspective on what the biggest issues in the watershed were and the sources of those problems.
In other watersheds with management plans, the most common practices communities and landowners follow through with are best management practices for land and water quality monitoring, usually conducted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, Brown said.
The management practices include stabilizing and restoring stream banks, keeping cattle from grazing too close to water, making plans for managing nutrients on farms, restoration of game bird habitat and controlling invasive and destructive species.
Officials argue in the plan that prescribed grazing on high-quality pasture can reduce illness in cattle and increase their weight.
The number of landowners who already undertake best management practices is unknown. A message left at the Newton County Conservation District was not returned, and two officials at the Buffalo Conservation District in Searcy County did not know and were unaware of the watershed management plan.
Brown said the Buffalo's watershed was in better shape overall than other watersheds the commission has formulated plans for because it hasn't been as developed.
The 622-page document is available on FTN Associates' website at http://bit.ly/2zOb7lo. The environmental consulting firm drafted the plan for the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.
Stakeholders can comment on the plan through Jan. 15. After that, the commission will consider the comments and send the plan to the EPA, Brown said.
Gordon Watkins, a Newton County farmer and president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said he had not read the draft plan and that his organization wasn't prepared to fully comment yet.
But his organization's primary concern was still an issue, he said.
"Our biggest issue is the exclusion of Big Creek from the priority streams," Watkins said.
Samples from the creek taken in 2016 show higher levels of nitrates and dissolved oxygen that should be of concern for the plan, he said.
Middle Big Creek, nearer to C&H, was not included because data did not show it was in as bad of shape as the six priority watersheds, Brown said. Data used to make that determination came from the 1980s through 2015.
Instead, the six smaller priority subwatersheds are for Flatrock, Tomahawk, Calf, Bear, Brush and lower Big creeks.
In those watersheds, officials set target reductions of nitrates by as much as 70 percent and of E. coli by as much as 82 percent. Efforts to manage nitrogen would in turn reduce phosphorus and sediment in the creeks.
Those would be achieved largely through prescribed grazing, stream buffers, pasture planting and management and exclusion of cattle from streams, according to the plan. The cost of any of these projects in a single creek's watershed would likely be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more than $1 million in the lower Big Creek watershed, the plan estimated.
The plan must contain nine elements for the EPA to accept it: identification of causes and source; expected pollution reductions from the recommendations; management measures; estimates of technical and financial assistance; education and outreach efforts; a schedule for implementation; a description of attainable milestones; criteria for measuring pollution load reduction; and monitoring measures.
The plan is an outline of priority efforts to reduce or prevent pollution from occurring in the Buffalo River. It is not regulatory, but it can be a catalyst for landowners applying for grants for conservation practices. Additionally, the six smaller priority subwatersheds could be seen more favorably in grant applications over applications for other subwatersheds, officials have said.
The plan also will not address facilities that are issued permits in the area, because those are regulated by other government agencies, Brown said.
Cities, counties and the Legislature could pass legislation that restrict permitted activities, he said, but the commission doesn't have the power to do that.
Stakeholders have included the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Forestry Commission, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, county conservation districts, recreation and environmental interest groups, farmers and ranchers.
The Buffalo River's watershed is 1,342.7 square miles and contains more than 2,000 miles of streams, according to the draft plan. The river is 150 miles long. About 40 percent of it is publicly owned by the National Park Service, the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest and eight Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife management areas.
The watershed is primarily located in Newton and Searcy counties but also stretches into Marion, Baxter, Stone, Van Buren and Pope counties.
Metro on 12/31/2017
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