Officials close to implementing water quality standards for Illinois River

Saturday, December 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma's top water quality official said his agency is close to implementing water quality standards that will reduce phosphorus levels in the Illinois River.

Derek Smithee, head of water quality for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, met Friday with water conservationists, many of whom told Smithee his agency cannot afford to wait to implement phosphorus standards.

``If we wait another 20 years, we might as well remove the scenic river designation entirely,'' said Ed Fite, director of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. ``If we stopped pollution today, we would see a remarkable improvement soon in the Illinois River.''

Smithee agreed his agency can't wait any longer to revise the standards, but stopped short of setting an exact figure on how much phosphorus the Illinois River could tolerate.

He said Friday's meeting, however, convinced him there is still enough time and support for the staff to develop phosphorus guidelines to be voted on by the board in February.

Smithee originally suggested postponing the process until water quality standards are revised again next December.

The Illinois River has been polluted by a nutrient overload, primarily phosphorus, that has contributed to excessive algae growth. Environmentalists blame chicken waste.

The river is designated as one of the state's six scenic rivers, but its quality has declined during the last few years.

Smithee said stricter water quality standards are needed for the Illinois River because the current restrictions aren't working.

To reach that goal, he said, data shows the 30-day average phosphorus discharge on the river would have to be reduced from its current level of 0.075 to 0.10 milligrams per liter to approximately 0.03 to 0.06 milligrams per liter.

``That reduction is achievable and would result in real-world improvements,'' Smithee said.

He said it's not too much to ask that Oklahoma's scenic rivers compare with similar rivers in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Concentrations of nutrients in Oklahoma's scenic rivers, particularly the Illinois River, are higher than concentrations in pristine watersheds across the United States, research shows.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the total phosphorus concentration in the Illinois River south of Siloam Springs, Ark., is about 10 times the national average.