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Probe: Area of Buffalo River tainted

In groundwater, pollution on rise by Emily Walkenhorst | November 25, 2018 at 3:21 a.m. | Updated November 25, 2018 at 3:21 a.m.
FILE — C&H Hog Farms, seen from the air in May 2017.

Federal research in the Buffalo River's watershed shows increased pollution in the groundwater, according to a U.S. Geological Survey presentation prepared this month.

Researchers have not been able to tie the presence of algae to C&H Hog Farms, a large industrial hog farm located on Big Creek, a Buffalo tributary, in a study that could take years to complete.

The Buffalo, the country's first national river, had 70 miles of algae this year, disrupting tourists' late summer trips down the waterway. That's about half of the 150-mile Buffalo River, 135 miles of which are in the national park.

The preliminary findings presented earlier this month to the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee come from multiple studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

The state Environmental Quality Department denied a new operating permit for C&H Hog Farms last week, citing, among several reasons, that the farm could be contributing to water-quality issues in Big Creek and the Buffalo.

Research presented to the committee is not complete, and in the case of algae, it could take several more years to determine the sources of the problem. The research also has implicated other animal agriculture in the watershed as potential sources of elevated nutrients -- algae-causing phosphorus and nitrates.

Buffalo River Watershed Alliance President Gordon Watkins said his organization has been careful, in the absence of strong evidence, not to link C&H Farms to algae growth. Still, the group is concerned about any possible increase in algae-causing nutrients in the river, which is surrounded by animal agriculture activities.

Three studies are focused on the Buffalo's water quality. Two researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and another researcher from the Environmental Quality Department studied water quality issues and sources of those issues in Mill Creek.

Researchers from the Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey and Geological Survey's Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center studied the Buffalo's water quality above and below its confluence with Big Creek.

Billy Justus, an aquatic research biologist with the Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center in Little Rock, examined the growth of algae on the river.

The likely sources of bacteria in Mill Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo, are cattle, poultry and humans, Justus said. In Mill Creek, the U.S. Geological Survey is testing the DNA of waste to determine its source.

Researchers can determine what type of creatures are contributing to the pollution through genetic sequence testing of their waste. Genetic sequences of different animals' intestinal microbes are unique.

Samples taken on Mill Creek below the Marble Falls wastewater treatment plant detected more human waste than from cattle, the two groups tested. Human waste detected was much lower upstream, where cattle waste was far higher as the sampling moved closer to cattle farms.

Researchers do not plan to test for traces of hog manure. Dr. Nathaniel Smith, state health officer and a member of the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, asked why not, if feral hogs are expected to be a possible source of pollution in the river. Justus said he didn't believe the Mill Creek area had enough feral hogs to justify the research.

How many feral hogs are in the watershed is something David Peterson, who is president of the Ozark Society and who attended the committee meeting, would like to have a better measure of.

"I'd like to have the supposed issue of feral hogs put to rest once and for all," Peterson said.

He said more domesticated hogs, cattle and poultry farms are in the watershed than feral hogs likely are. He also said those are a bigger risk than human visitors to the Buffalo, who he said are outweighed 400 times by domesticated animals in the watershed.

Nutrients are higher in the groundwater around Mill Creek than in the creek's surface water, researchers have found.

The karst terrain surrounding the Buffalo River can cause surface water to seep underground.

Pollution in the groundwater could be a problem for decades, Justus said.

Many people in Newton County, nearly all of which is in the Buffalo's watershed, get their drinking water from groundwater wells.

"It's very significant," Justus said.

Nutrients were at times higher, but not significantly, in Big Creek after C&H Hog Farms went into operation, Justus said.

"What we're seeing now is comparable to old data," Justus told the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee earlier this month.

However, Justus said, the creek is a having a major impact on the Buffalo.

Big Creek is the only tributary of the Buffalo to be considered "impaired" by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, in part for elevated E. coli and in part for diminished dissolved oxygen. The Buffalo is additionally considered impaired for several miles upstream of its confluence with Big Creek and several miles downstream of it, specifically for E. coli levels.

In the algae study, researchers could not link C&H Hog Farms to the increase in "filamentous" algae on the river in recent summers, Justus said. Such algae is green and resembles mesh.

Researchers have found that gravel bars along the river have higher phosphorous concentrations, likely contributing to phosphorus in the river. Some springs, including tributaries, also had higher than expected nitrate and phosphorous concentrations than researchers expected, much higher than the concentrations in "mainstem" sites, or points on the Buffalo.

Justus wants to do additional years of research on the algae problem, although the U.S. Geological Survey does not have funding to do so. He said he thinks another five to six years is needed to determine the source of the algae.

"If there's more money, we'd love it and can match it," Justus told the committee.

Metro on 11/25/2018

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