Management plan for Upper White River watershed due by year-end

Water flows Thursday, April 13, 2023, beneath the bridge over the West Fork of the White River along Main Street in West Fork. The city of West Fork is working with the Arkansas Department of Transportation to replace the bridge with work set to begin in 2026. Visit for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

HUNTSVILLE -- Work on a plan to protect and preserve the Upper White River watershed should be completed by the end of this year and submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for acceptance early in 2024.

According to Erin Scott, who is working on the plan for H2Ozarks, the developers of the plan will have one more public input session with local stakeholders late this summer or early this fall before submitting the final draft to the Natural Resources Division of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. After the state review, the plan will be submitted to the EPA for review and acceptance, Scott said Tuesday.

Scott said the nonprofit group is working to identify problems with water quality, find solutions, and provide information and resources to implement those solutions. The watershed management plan will contain recommendations, but those will be voluntary, not mandated by laws or regulations.

"We are looking for ways to protect and improve our surface water quality," Scott said. "We all appreciate water quality. A lot of us drink water from Beaver Lake and many more people appreciate the other uses of our natural resources."

Scott hosted the third stakeholders meeting on the plan Tuesday afternoon at the Carroll Electric Cooperative office in Huntsville. The plan has already been discussed at stakeholders meetings in Berryville and Fayetteville. The fourth and final session has not been scheduled.

The watershed management plan for the Upper White River covers more than 2,100 square miles of Northwest Arkansas, including all or parts of Benton, Washington, Carroll, Madison, Newton, Boone and Franklin counties. The watershed includes an area in southwestern Missouri, but the management plan is limited to Arkansas.

According to information presented by Philip Massirer, a water resources engineer with FTN Associates, There are 69 sub-watersheds included in the Upper White River watershed area. FTN, a Little Rock-based consulting firm, compiled information on water quality issues within each of those 60 sub-watersheds and found 11 that should be listed as "recommended" meaning they are most in need of attention and remediation. The information compiled measured or modelled levels of nutrients, sediment, pesticides, pathogens and heavy metals and petroleum. Of the 11 sub-water sheds, eight are in the Beaver Lake area and three in the Kings River area.

Massirer told the group the information already gathered will allow "a deep dive" into the individual sub-watersheds so problems can be identified in detail and best management practices and resources recommended.

"That's going to be the big focus of the next meeting," Massirer said. "To talk about practices."

Lane Crider, chief executive officer of the Beaver Water district, said that while problems between Arkansas and Oklahoma over water quality in the Illinois River have been "long-running and well-publicized" and efforts to resolve the problems have had some success, problems in the Upper White River watershed have gone unnoticed.

"In the White River watershed phosphorus loading is up 35% and nitrogen loading is up 31%," Crider said during the meeting.

After the public input session Crider elaborated on the problems that could arise from high levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in local water sources. Crider said that harmful algal blooms can produce toxins that are harmful to humans and animals. He mentioned incidents in Toledo, Ohio, where levels of toxins were so high the use of city water was banned.

According to information on the state Division of Environmental Quality website, toxins were so high in August 2014 that Toledo city officials banned use of city water, including bathing. The event affected 500,000 people and became so bad that the National Guard and the American Red Cross were brought in to manage water distribution centers after all bottled water in the city sold out. The economy was severely impacted both directly and indirectly as businesses and public services were temporarily closed.

Crider said smaller-scale events have happened locally and could happen on a larger scale if water quality problems are not addressed.

"At Lake Fayetteville in the last two or three summers they've had 'No contact' orders for people and for pets," Crider said. "What keeps me up at night is the increasing nutrient loads. If we have the right amount of nutrients and the right amount of sunlight we could have enough cyano-toxins that we might have a 'Do not drink' order in Beaver Lake. Can you imagine what that would mean? We provide drinking water to 400,000 area residents. What would they do? All the poultry plants would have to shut down. That would be a catastrophic day."

Allen Brown environmental program coordinator with the state Natural Resources Division, said the normal process for reviewing watershed management plans takes about two weeks at the state level. Once the plans are accepted by the state, he said, the natural Resources Division will submit them to the EPA for review and acceptance. The federal review process generally takes two or three months so if the plan for the Upper White River is submitted to the EPA in January a decision could be reached by the end of March.

Scott said the plan, once it is accepted by the EPA, will offer information and guidelines to local governments, businesses and property owners on what they can do to improve water quality. The study, if accepted, will also make the area eligible for state and federal funding to help with water quality improvement projects and education.

Water quality

H2Ozarks is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve the water quality of upper White River watershed, located in Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas, which includes the rivers, streams and four major impoundments: Beaver, Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals Lakes. Formed in late 2001 as the Upper White River Basin Foundation, H2Ozarks mission is to promote water quality in the upper White River basin watershed through bi-state collaboration on research, public policy, and action projects in Arkansas and Missouri.

Source: Staff report