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Oklahoma will keep its standard for phosphorus in the Illinois River, rejecting a lower concentration recommended by a university and a committee.

This leaves the target for Arkansas farmers and utilities at its current level, state officials said Wednesday.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board has agreed to start a rule-making process in the Sooner State to implement the means of measuring the concentration that were recommended in the committee's study.

The changes are part of a new agreement among the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment, the Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The agreement, signed Wednesday, will be reviewed in five years to see if it is still sufficient, Natural Resources Commission Executive Director Bruce Holland and Deputy Director Ryan Benefield said after the commission's November meeting Wednesday.

It's the culmination of nearly two years of discussions on whether Oklahoma's phosphorus standard should be lower, which took place after two years of study on the standard.

The states issued a news release Wednesday praising the cooperation and success so far in reducing phosphorus concentrations in the long-polluted Illinois River that runs from Arkansas to Oklahoma. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the agreement "will allow us to leverage our collective resources to greatly improve the water quality in the Illinois River for future generations."

Conservation groups -- Save the Illinois River, the Sierra Club of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Conservation Coalition -- released a joint statement of "disappointment." The groups said standards in the agreement were not strict enough and did not account for "scientifically valid" recommendations.

Arkansas and Oklahoma will lower the standard for wastewater discharge permits from 1 milligram of phosphorus per liter to 0.5 milligram per liter for existing permits being modified and 0.2 milligrams per liter for new permits. The last new permit in Northwest Arkansas had a limit of 0.1 milligrams per liter.

Expired wastewater treatment plant permits in Northwest Arkansas are on administrative hold -- meaning the treatment plants can still operate under the outdated permits -- by the Department of Environmental Quality. These permits were placed on hold during the study period and the negotiation phase of the agreement.

Oklahoma's standard for phosphorus concentrations in the state's scenic rivers is 0.037 milligrams per liter. A December 2016 study by Baylor University and a joint study committee suggested a concentration of 0.035 milligrams per liter. The committee had one representative from the university and three leaders from each state.

Benefield, who served on the study committee, said he agreed with the 0.035 milligrams per liter recommendation but said he supported Oklahoma's decision not to change the standard.

"They're so close together, there's not a significant difference," he said of the numbers.

Being even 0.001 milligram of phosphorus above the standard can trigger a regulatory response. Recent measurements in the Illinois River and its tributaries in Arkansas show average concentrations sometimes well above Oklahoma's standard. The Illinois River south of Siloam Springs and close to the states' border had an average concentration in 2017 of 0.043 milligrams per liter. Readings have been trending downward since first being tracked in 1981.

State and federal officials have declined to conduct a Total Maximum Daily Load study, which would help determine the means to remedy the waters, including the limits to set in discharge permits.

That's still what Ed Brocksmith and Save the Illinois River, the nonprofit he co-founded, want.

The agreement won't improve water quality "when the answer is a TMDL, which is the solution to the problem that we have in the watershed," he said.

Metro on 11/16/2018

Print Headline: Oklahoma keeps Illinois River standard

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