Northwest Arkansas Times
Officials Boost E. Coli Testing In River, Creek
Opening Of C&H Hog Farms Elevates Concern For Buffalo
By Ryan McGeeney
Posted: May 15, 2013 at 3:16 a.m.
Administrators with the Buffalo National River have increased the frequency of E. coli monitoring at the river’s confluence with Big Creek near Hasty from quarterly to weekly.
Faron Usrey, an aquatic ecologist with the river, said he began collecting weekly samples the first week of March at three monitoring stations in an effort to determine whether C&H Hog Farms, the recently constructed concentrated animal feeding operation in Mount Judea, is affecting the level of fecal coli form entering the Buffalo River.
“We’ve started a weekly sample just to get a background level of E. coli in the river,” Usrey said.
The 23-acre C&H Hog Farms is permitted to house about 2,500 full grown sows and as many as 4,000 piglets. The owners of the farm have land-use agreements for about 630 acres where hog manure from the farm can be spread as fertilizer.
Jason Henson, co-owner of the farm with his cousins Philip and Richard Campbell, said in an interview last week that Cargill Inc. began delivering sows to the facility in early May. Henson expects the farm to reach its full operating capacity within three months.
Although the farm’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit requires buffer zones of more than 100 feet from waterways, environmental advocates have voiced concern that heavy rains may wash residual nutrients into groundwater and the waterways.
Buffalo River administrators take samples from Big Creek just before its confluence with the Buffalo and from stations both above and below the confluence. Situating the stations that way allows officials to distinguish how pollutants are entering the river, Usrey said.
The samples are analyzed to identify the number of E. coli colonies within 100 milliliters of water. In freshwater bodies used for recreational activities such as swimming, the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance sets acceptable levels of E. coli at 298 colonies per 100 milliliters.
According to data supplied by Usrey, weekly sample analysis from the three sites around the confluence of Big Creek and the Buffalo National River range from as little as three colonies in a sample collected March 27 at the Carver access site to as high as 131 colonies in a sample collected March 20 at the same location.
“The samples we’ve taken have been extremely low, especially considering the size of the creek,” Usrey said.
On Monday, the National Park Service published a four year assessment of E. coli levels in the Buffalo National River. The report, authored by Usrey, lists 35 water-quality monitoring sites along the Buffalo National River, 23 of which monitor tributaries near their confluence with the river. Nine monitor water within the river itself, and another three sites monitor water quality at Luallen Spring, Mitch Hill Spring and Gilbert Spring.
The report said that E. coli concentrations generally were well within standards set by the federal Clean Water Act and the Department of Environmental Quality. Higher levels of E. coli were measured at the river’s Ponca access point, the confluence with Tomahawk Creek in Searcy County and the Mill Creek confluence.
Buffalo National River officials have posted warnings about the presence of E. coli on the Buffalo near Mill Creek since 2010, after a sewage treatment plant in Marble Falls failed, discharging raw sewage into the Buffalo tributary. The discharge began in January 2009 and continued for more than a year before the town was able to borrow a pump from the Arkansas Rural Water Association and route the sewage to a waste-treatment plant.
The Mill Creek warning signs are still posted, said Kevin Cheri, Buffalo National River superintendent. Park administrators are only now beginning to discuss whether the water quality has recovered to the point that administrators may remove the signs.
Usrey said it costs about $30 to analyze each water sample for the presence of E. coli. Usrey uses an analysis system developed by IDEXX laboratories that causes the E. coli colonies to become phosphorescent in the sample tube, visible under a black light.
Usrey estimated the park would need to add about $30,000 to its annual budget to hire an additional technician to monitor, analyze and report weekly samples from the Big Creek confluence, and to pay for the testing material itself. Considering that the park is operating under an effective 10 percent budget cut - the result of four years of declining National Park Service budgets and a 6 percent cut enacted through the federal budget sequester - Cheri said finding the funding for an additional position would be a challenge.
“The park is strapped,” Cheri said. “We have closures and reduced services, so that luxury is not there. We’ve contacted our regional office, and it’s under consideration as an ‘emergency need.’”
Cheri said he had considered contacting other state agencies for financial assistance in funding the additional position.
Northwest Arkansas, Pages 7 on 05/15/2013