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Oklahoma House passes water standards legislation

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ More study would be required before strict water quality standards are implemented for the Illinois River in northeastern Oklahoma under legislation passed by the state House Tuesday.

Lawmakers passed the resolution in spite of objections from a Tulsa lawmaker who said it would delay implementation of tighter restrictions on pollutants and protect water quality in the Tulsa area.

``We have a serious problem with water quality in Tulsa,'' said Rep. Chad Stites, R-Tulsa. ``There's no need to push it back a year.''

The resolution's author, Rep. M.C. Leist, D-Morris, characterized Stites' objection as a red herring because Tulsa's water supply does not come from the Illinois River.

The standards were adopted on May 7 as an emergency rule by Gov. Frank Keating. They have drawn protests from officials in Arkansas who claim they are too stringent.

The rules restrict the level of phosphorous in Oklahoma's six designated scenic rivers to 0.037 parts per million. Arkansas is affected because the Illinois River flows from Arkansas to Oklahoma.

Leist said the resolution does not repeal the pollutant standard but gives the Oklahoma Water Resources Board more flexibility to change its rules and negotiate phosphorous levels in waterways with other states.

``It increases the flexibility of the Water Resources Board,'' Leist said.

Phil Lorenz, president of the Oklahoma State Scenic Rivers Association, said the limit is a good first step.

``Leist is right to look for an economic impact statement and develop a technical plan for implementation, but 10 years seems to be plenty of time to get it in place,'' Lorenz said.

But Gerald Hilsher, a commissioner with the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said he was shocked the bill was approved.

``That it would pass at 86 votes amazes me. I think this is a statement by the House of Representatives that we really don't need the commission or the scenic rivers,'' Hilsher said.

The measure also prohibits the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office from using the new phosphorous standard as ``the sole basis'' for a lawsuit tied to pollution of scenic rivers until an economic impact study is completed in April.

The average phosphorous level of the Illinois at Watts, near where the river crosses into Oklahoma, is 0.25 parts per million, or about seven times the new standard, according to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

Excess phosphorous promotes algae growth and turns streams green. Oklahoma officials blame much of the problem in the Illinois on the heavy concentration of poultry operations in bordering Arkansas.

Leist said he believes more study is needed before the standards are implemented to determine the impact on the poultry industry in Northeastern Oklahoma, which he said has created jobs and improved the economy in a once impoverished area.

``We're talking about jobs. We're talking about changing the economy of an entire region,'' Leist said.

The measure, House Joint Resolution 1061, passed 86-13, and was sent to the Senate for action.
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