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$1.4M earmarked for Illinois River for cleanup projects

by Emily Walkenhorst | September 17, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

About $1.4 million appropriated more than a decade ago to help the Illinois River will be distributed to applicants who want to implement practices to improve the river’s condition.

The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission is giving the money to the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, a Cave Springs nonprofit organization dedicated to cleaning up the river.

The river has been degraded for decades because of excess phosphorus commonly blamed on poultry farming and the use of poultry litter as fertilizer in Northwest Arkansas. Wastewater utilities also have undergone changes to reduce phosphorus discharges into the river.

The project is one in a long line of efforts to improve the river for years, as negotiations continue between Arkansas and Oklahoma over what the river’s standard of phosphorus should be.

The project is new in that the funds come from the state, although the commission has done similar work using federal funds with certain requirements in past years prior, Deputy Director Ryan Benefield said.

The Natural Resources Commission received $1.5 million from the Arkansas Legislature via Act 1313 of 2007. The money was for the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program run out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. The program pays farmers rent to remove environmentally sensitive land from production, according to the USDA.

The commission spent about $100,000 of the funds but couldn’t find enough applicants for it, Benefield said.

The commission decided to offer up the rest of the funds this year to the partnership to use in a state program, rather than a federal one, he said. The commission will have members on the program’s advisory board.

The partnership will decide which applicants to grant funds to, although it is not yet accepting applications. Nicole Hardiman, executive director of the partnership, said she hopes to do so around “the holidays” in November.

Farmers will have to provide about a 25 percent match.

The money can go toward numerous activities: fencing off streams from cattle, forest improvement, prescribed grazing and stream habitat improvements, among other things, Benefield said.

The money will be spent in areas with low to no erosion, Hardiman said. Restoration of eroded stream banks is not as cost-effective for the amount of funding, she said.

The partnership has a goal of restoring 20 miles of land along the river, and it plans to solicit donations and private grants to match the commission’s contribution.

“We’re really excited for the opportunity to partner with ANRC and the state,” Hardiman said. “And we’re happy the state’s investing this money in the Illinois River watershed.”

Ed Brocksmith, a founder of Save The Illinois River in Tahlequah, Okla., said the number of projects “makes my head spin.” What he and others have wanted for years is a Total Maximum Daily Load study that would determine limits to wastewater discharge permits and other activities in the watershed designed to improve the river’s conditions.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has declined to list the Illinois River in several places and tributaries on its impaired waters list in a category that would require such a study and limitations. Instead, the agency has argued that a voluntary watershed management plan is sufficient for ensuring improvements to the river’s and tributaries’ excess pathogens.

The agency’s most recent draft of its impaired waters list is not yet final.

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