Watershed meetings underway
By Emily Walkenhorst
Posted: December 12, 2016 at 2:29 a.m.
MARSHALL — About 100 people attended the first public meeting of an 18-month process to create a watershed management plan for the Buffalo River last week.
Many of them — farmers, neighbors and outsiders who love the Buffalo — agreed on some of the same concerns for the river: too much gravel in the river, failing septic tanks, erosion. Many also agreed that research on the area’s lagging economy should be done before a management plan is finalized, and many agreed that education and cooperation between all levels of government and locals is important.
They disagreed on other issues: whether agriculture poses a threat, and whether visitors contribute to degradation of the river. Some expressed concerns about whether the management plan would consider all the relevant players in the watershed and be fair to everyone, and whether the management plan would ever become more regulatory than voluntary.
FTN Associates, an Arkansas environmental engineering firm, held the public meeting Thursday morning at the Searcy County Civic Center gymnasium, the first of six public meetings on the proposed watershed-management plan. Hired by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, the firm has handled watershed-management plans in other parts of Arkansas, in Mississippi and in West Virginia.
The plans always outline recommended voluntary actions for watershed management, FTN Systems Ecologist Kent Thornton told Thursday’s group. None have ever become regulatory.
The purpose of a watershed-management plan is to outline conservation recommendations and make watershed landowners available for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant funds to implement those recommendations, Thornton said.
Allen Brown, environmental program coordinator for the commission, described Thursday’s meeting as a “fact-finding mission” to gauge people’s concerns for the river.
“We got some pretty good responses from landowners as far as what they want to address,” Brown said, adding that people had some common themes in their concerns.
But the ways issues may be addressed are myriad, Brown said, and would be a part of the discussion during the development process for the management plan.
The Buffalo River watershed spans hundreds of square miles in mostly Newton and Searcy counties. Parts of the watershed extend into Marion, Baxter, Stone, Van Buren and Pope counties.
A watershed is an area surrounding a body of water that eventually drains into the body of water. The watershed management plan would be intended for all 150 miles of the river, not just the 135 miles that are designated as the Buffalo National River by the National Park Service.
The plan will not consider facilities that have Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality permits because the commission has no authority over those, Thornton told the crowd.
Gordon Watkins, a Jasper cattle farmer and president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, expressed concern that his nonpermitted cattle farm would be subject to more scrutiny than a permitted hog farm during the watershed-management plan development process.
FTN Associates will host additional meetings about every three months during the watershed-management plan development process. Thornton said he expects to hold the next meeting at the end of March.
Funds for the plan came from a $107,000 grant from the EPA. The plan is a part of the state’s larger Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee — a committee created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that comprises five state agencies and will include public meetings and stakeholder input. That committee will meet for the first time in January, officials have said, although no date has been set.
There was little mention Thursday of C&H Hog Farms in Mount Judea — the only federally classified “large” hog farm in the watershed. The farm has drawn opposition for about the past four years because of the perceived risk it poses to the river, and that opposition has been the catalyst for research at the farm and regulation changes, including a temporary ban on medium and large hog farms in the watershed pending certain research results.
But agriculture and whether the management plan would address it were among the major concerns expressed Thursday.
Niagle Ratchford, Mike Love and Billy Ragland — all farmers — said they attended Thursday’s meeting to learn more about the development process for the management plan and make sure it weighed all stakeholders’ input evenly.
“I just want to see it’s done fairly,” said Ragland, a cattle and hay farmer just north of Marshall.
Love, a hay farmer, said he was concerned about any possible government control of land that wouldn’t benefit the environment. He said he didn’t want to see regulations turn the area back into forestland, arguing that farming and timber were both major industries to the area.
Twin brothers Larry and Garry Lilley, who live outside of the watershed but are frequent visitors to the Buffalo River, noted the great economic impact of both tourism and trout fishing in the watershed and said their top concern was seeing C&H shut down.
Sara Thorne, a member of the White River chapter of Trout Unlimited, said she’s concerned for Buffalo River tourism, which she described as a major industry in the watershed.
Thorne said Thursday’s meeting was informative and helped familiarize people with the development process for a watershed management plan.
Thorne said she hopes the process will consider groups in the watershed that would be willing to help implement it and the pollution risk posed by animal farms and associated fertilizer runoff. She’s also concerned about erosion and wants to see more measures taken to prevent it.
“You’ve got to get involved in taking care of this stuff,” she said.
NW News on 12/12/2016