By Rachel Leland
Dr. Ryan King, biology department graduate program director, will counsel the Scenic River Joint Study Committee, which will finalize the phosphorous level of Oklahoma’s scenic rivers, a central point of numerous legal battles between Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Industrial fertilizer run-off from Arkansas is believed to be the cause of “nuisance algae” in Oklahoma which can cause oxygen depletion and kill fish.
Oklahoma standardized a .037 mpl phosphorous concentration for six of its “scenic rivers” in 2002 to prevent harmful algal-blooms triggered by high levels of phosphorous.
To settle the dispute, the committee sought an expert who had done similar work before, and who was not from an institution in Arkansas or Oklahoma, to gather data, analyze it, and inform the committee of an acceptable phosphorous level.
Dr. King responded to a request for proposals and became one of three candidates brought to Tulsa, Okla. to present how each would conduct the study. Baylor’s team was chosen.
Philadelphia graduate student, Lauren Housley, who assists Dr. King in his research, said she hopes the study can inform the public on the environmental risk that fertilizer poses.
“It’s such a struggle to get people to think about what they put in their water and it’s a struggle when you think, ‘If I pour this toxic chemical down my drain, they don’t realize that things like fertilizer are bad,’” Housley said.
Oklahoma hoped the standardized phosphorous level would prevent unesthetic algae from overpopulating Oklahoma’s few pristine-clear watered streams, including the Illinois River, which draws as many as 10,000 visitors on summer weekends.
“If you’ve got people floating the river what you have is sometimes they complain about and they talk about how they’re not coming back,” King said. “Often people are barefoot and people say it’s gross. To feel that tickling your legs and getting your toes in that and then it washes up on the bank and starts to stink and it attracts flies.”
This conflict of interests led to numerous legal battles, including one that went to the Supreme Court in 1992, where the justices ruled unanimously that Arkansas was obliged to comply with Oklahoma’s water standards.
According to King, northwest Arkansas is the second largest producer of chickens. And chicken waste is often used to fertilize land where cattle graze.
“In order to get rid of it, cow farms got the chicken waste,” Dr. King said. “The problem is that it saturates the soil with phosphorous and then it gets into the water.”
Although these industries are important for Arkansas’ economy, the runoff is devastating for the popular destination spots on the scenic rivers.
“It ends up flowing down and causing problems for people who really aren’t the ones who should be paying for it,” said King.
King said Arkansas made attempts to limit the phosphorous runoff that crosses the state’s border, but that the efforts are not enough.
Derek Smithee of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board said in 2012, phosphorous levels in some areas were 5 times that. He is also the co-chair of Oklahoma’s half of the joint-committee.
The 2002 agreement gave Oklahoma and Arkansas 10 years to reach the phosphorous level of .0375 mpl.
“That was greeted with some displeasure and a bunch of concern that the number was too stringent,” Smithee said.
To conduct the research, which he hopes to finalize by the end of 2016, King and a group of graduate students will frequent 35 sites in both Arkansas and Oklahoma to collect data and returning to Baylor to analyze it.
For legal reasons, King could not comment on whether he thought the new phosphorus level would be greater or smaller than the current standard.
Whatever the standard will be, both Oklahoma and Arkansas are legally bound to respect it.
If the number is lower than the current standard, Arkansas may have to increase its efforts to prevent runoff phosphorus from crossing the border. This could cost the state millions of dollars.
Housley said he hopes that the study will have implications that reach.
“Having a study where were really looking at a lot of different sites and parameters,” Housley said.