OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma's Water Resources Board unanimously agreed Tuesday to toughen phosphorus pollution standards in the state's six scenic rivers.
The board's decision, which now goes to the state Legislature, would drop the standard for phosphorous pollution to .037 parts per million over 10 years.
Chicken waste, runoff and municipal waste have led to the pollution problem, particularly in the Illinois River, which has a 0.2 phosphorous level at the Arkansas state line and a 0.13 level in Tahlequah.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the phosphorus concentrated in the Illinois River, south of Siloam Springs, Ark., is nearly 10 times the national average.
``We wrestled with this number long and hard,'' said Derek Smithee, water quality chief for the resources board. ``It is a stretch _ no doubt _ but it's achievable.''
Smithee and water board members said Oklahoma had ``gone too long'' without implementing a specific cap on phosphorus levels in its scenic rivers.
``It's time to draw a definitive line in the sand and start working toward that,'' said Ed Fite, director of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. ``This issue isn't just about scenic rivers, it's about the quality of life in northeastern Oklahoma.''
Although some cities in Arkansas are working on setting phosphorus standards, the state has no set limit. That factor has contributed to the high phosphorus pollution mainly in the Illinois River, board officials said.
Oklahoma and Arkansas environmentalists and corporate officials applauded the water board's compromise, but some had reservations about meeting the standard even in 10 years.
``I still have some issues with the measure as it is now,'' said A. Mark Bennett, general counsel for the Arkansas Soil & Water Conservation Commission. ``The extra time does give us an opportunity to comply, but I think it'll still be difficult to hit that goal in the Illinois River.''
Marla Peek, director of regulatory affairs for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, said she thinks it could take nearly 20 years to meet the standards and advocated voluntary reductions in phosphorus pollution.
``I think this is more of a policy issue than a water quality issue,'' Peek said. ``I'm not thrilled with the proposal because we have the state saying, 'here's the target to meet,' but won't put up any funding to help meet that target.''
Residents of Tahlequah could be hit particularly hard by the new regulations. The town of about 10,000, which receives its drinking water from the Illinois River, recently spent $12 million to upgrade its water treatment facilities. Tahlequah and towns like it could be forced to pay millions to comply with the water board regulation, said Susan Daniel, staff attorney for the Oklahoma Municipal League.
``We're tired of the state setting standards that are impossible to meet and then patting us on the head and telling us that the Department of Environmental Quality will sort it out,'' Daniel said.