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  • 04 Nov 2019 4:28 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Newton County Times


    Watershed could be ‘a bushel of a mess’

    JASPER — A joint meeting of the Arkansas Senate and House committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, Wednesday night at the Carroll Electric Building in Jasper. Committee chairmen conducted a public hearing over Gov. Asa Hutchinson's executive order creating the Buffalo River Conservation Committee (BRCC) that would oversee conservation projects in the watershed area, and his request for $1 million for the purpose of leveraging opportunities to receive federal grants for funding conservagtion projects in the watershed.

    Wes Ward, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, and one of four state agency BRCC members, gave a short explanation about the governor's funding request. When the BRCC executive order was issued it included placing $1 million towards the committee's efforts. It was also made known that the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation pledged $1 million to go to those efforts, as well. Essentially there are $2 million to accomplish projects identified by BRCC subcommittees.

    Neither the BRCC, nor the cabinet agencies, have control over donations made by any entity that wants to become a participating partner. There may be some agreement between the donor, the BRCC and its subcommittees on which projects those funds could be used. If a list of priorities is identified, but only so much state funding is available, outside entities could take the list and try to accomplish them on their own, Ward said.

    "We need your input,"said state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), saying this is just the beginning of conversations. Irvin was joined by her counterpart state Rep. Jack Ladyman (R-Corning). The primary reason for us coming here is to hear what you have to say, he told the crowd.

    With all the information provided, Irvin opened the floor for public comment. The first was a question by Pam Stewart. "My driveway erosion can run into a tributary to the Buffalo River. Would I possibly qualify for a grant to correct the drainage?"

    Anything is on the table, Ward answered. The magnitude of the problem would be considered for prioritization. A project that would benefit significantly more people might be prioritized higher, he said.

    Irvin suggested that this could be considered an infrastructure issue and this particular problem might be included into a more broader project. Similarly, agriculture and tourism are to be considered for projects designed not only to protect the river, but also landowners and their ability to earn a living.

    Kelly Woods said he, his wife and family operate a cow-calf and hay operation in Newton County. He said he opposes the governor spending $1 million for promoting conservation practices that are already available. He said he consults conservation professionals to determine what practices are best for his farm.

    "We make the decision on what we would like to do on our property, not the government," Woods said. He added that there is a fear that what starts out to be voluntary can become mandatory.

    If the governor has a million dollars laying around to spend in the Buffalo River watershed there are better uses for it than focusing on a supposed environmental catastrophe that might or might not happen in the future. Woods thinks some programs, once initiated, could reduce or even eliminate farming activities in the watershed. "This is the perception we have," Woods said.

    To take his point further, Woods mentioned several needs that exist in the watershed.

    There are volunteer fire departments that are understaffed, under-equipped and undertrained. Wouldn't this money be better spent to help those people perform their volunteer duty? When was the last time a tourist fell off a bluff or had a wreck and they called out a snail darter to help? He said there are law enforcement officers working in the watershed who rely on welfare assistance and food stamps to make ends meet. "Hang your heads." Rural school districts within the watershed could use that money to better educate the children who live there. They could get the same modern technology larger schools outside the watershed already have, he said. Or the money could be used to help school districts meet their high transportation costs. When was the last time an Indiana bat was hired to teach your kids English or math, or drive your children over mountainous, curvy roads in the fog or on snowy days?

    Dustin Cowell said local people get the feeling they are being attacked for destroying the watershed. We feel that is misplaced and unfair. The river was beautiful in the past and it continues to be today. What's the difference between then and now? There are fewer hogs on creeks and streams and probably fewer cattle today. Tourism has grown considerably, however.

    Cowell said point 7 in the governor's executive order points to the use of sound science in determining water quality. "We've heard that before," he said, referring to the buy out of C&H Hog Farms at Mt. Judea. The farm was permitted and was operating under the rules of the permit, but found itself under constant attack by conservation groups that believed the farm to be a danger to the river because it is located next to Big Creek a tributary to the Buffalo.

    The governor made it known that the operators of the farm had done nothing wrong and scientific testing and monitoring of the river could not prove otherwise. Yet that did not prevent the farm from being shut down through the voluntary buy out agreement.

    "To me the precedent has been set that you don't have to do anything wrong for the government to step in," Cowell said. What protections would be in place to keep that from happening to others?

    He said tourism's effect on the river should also be studied.

    Andy McCutcheon, president of the Searcy County Cattlemen's Association, said he spoke to the panel in Marshall earlier in the day. He said he had two questions to pose at this time. What will happen to the BRCC if the $1 million isn't appropriated to it? Who will conduct future water quality testing? The testing previously has been controversial as it was conducted by conflicting interests, he pointed out.

    There needs to be an understanding that the Buffalo River watershed is separate from the Buffalo National River. This isn't federal land. This is private land. The Nature Conservancy doesn't hand out money without some kind of agenda or strings attached. The Nature Conservancy is prominently named in the Buffalo River Watershed Management Plan as a reference and as a lead agency in implementing proposed projects.

    Members of the Searcy County Cattlemen's Association utilize the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and others offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service under the United States Department of Agriculture, McCutcheon said, but if the Nature Conservancy plays a role in these programs a lot of farmers will turn away from them.

    The population of people and livestock residing in the watershed is far less than the number of tourist who recreationally use the river annually, he said. "I'm not against conservation and I don't know a farmer who is. We all are connected to the Buffalo River, some of us deeper than others. I have had family members be baptized in it and I have had family members die in it," he said. But until overuse of the river is acknowledged and it is regulated water quality issues on the river won't be resolved.

    Beth Ardapple, of Cave Creek near Mt. Judea, said the BRCC could help prevent future conflicts if there is good local representation on it and its subcommittees. It could also explore and support economic development. "We want jobs. We want our farmers. We want successful businesses. And we need them to fit in well with the Buffalo River because it's going to become more popular and more of an economic development engine over time."

    Ward responded to McCutcheon's questions. He said the BRCC would continue to follow the governor's directive even without the additional $1 million. Existing programs would continue, but would not have the additional resources to help implement projects at a more urgent pace.

    Water quality testing is a concern, Ward acknowledged. That would be something for subcommittees to consider.

    Ward noted that McCutcheon and Cowell would be perfect subcommittee members.

    Jessie Green, of White River Waterkeeper, said one thing that hasn't been mentioned is that the $1 million could be used towards wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Jasper could use this money as well as Marble Falls and Marshall. Sending the money to municipalities would provide relief to their ratepayers.

    Ed Manor, of Jasper, said in reviewing local history that the river was deeper and cleaner when the local people had stewardship over it. When the National Park Service came it said pretty much what officials were saying tonight, night that the plan is voluntary. The first thing the park service did was put up restrictions. "I can't believe that this voluntary committee is going to protect the property rights of the people who are paying your salaries, he said. "All we ask is that we be left alone."

    Finally, 18-year-old Shianna Brasel, of Jasper, took the microphone crediting the beauty of the lands surrounding the river to farmers like her father who manage the fields and forests. Without farming the watershed area would turn into another New York City or worse, "a bushel of a mess."

  • 01 Nov 2019 4:37 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Harrison Daily Times


    Conservation Committee addresses public distrust

    •  

    JASPER — In spite of hurried planning, about 60 or so people attended a joint meeting of the Arkansas Senate and House committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Wednesday night at the Carroll Electric Building in Jasper.

    It was the second meeting of the day in which committee chairmen conducted public hearings concerning Gov. Asa Hutchinson's executive order creating the Buffalo River Conservation Committee (BRCC) that would oversee conservation projects in the watershed area, and his request for $1 million for the purpose of leveraging opportunities to receive federal grants for funding projects in the watershed. A similar hearing was held earlier in the day at Marshall in Searcy County.

    The governor announced in September he wanted to use money from his "rainy day" fund to match another $1 million promised from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation for the plan. During a Legislative Council meeting last Friday, Oct. 25, state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) asked the council to withhold those funds. Irvin was upset the governor's office had not met with elected representatives from the watershed before announcing his plans. The way it happened, she said, was "incredibly disrespectful" of those who represent the impacted area. She also questioned just who might decide how the funds are used.

    Irvin apologized for the short notice about the meeting. She said a lot of legislators did not have enough information and wanted to meet with staff in the executive branch and to hold hearings to get input and concerns from residents of the watershed.

    Next week is an off week for legislators and then the following week is when the subcommittee reconvenes, she explained. Then the request goes to the Legislative Council, again. She said she had only a three-week window and had to hurry to schedule hearings.

    "We need your input," she said, saying this is just the beginning of conversations. Irvin was joined by her counterpart, state Rep. Jack Ladyman (R-Corning). The primary reason for the meeting was to hear what they had to say, he told the crowd.

    To provide background and an overview of the executive order were BRCC members Wes Ward, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture; Nathaniel Smith, MD, MPH, director of the Arkansas Department of Health and state health officer; and Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Not present was Becky Keogh, secretary of the department of Energy and the Environment. Taking her place on the panel Wednesday night was Dr. Richard McMullen, science director, Arkansas Department of Health.

    Ward said the governor has respect for the Buffalo River and that is stated in his executive order establishing the BRCC. The governor, in 2016, created the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee (BBRAC) charged with developing a voluntary watershed management plan. It was finalized in 2018. This year there has been a realignment of agencies and departments of state governments. The BRCC now replaces the BBRAC. The agencies represented on the BRCC will help local stakeholders form subcommittees to determine what projects are approved.

    This is non-regulatory, Ward emphasized. It's not an effort by the state to come in and place restrictions or requirements on anyone in the watershed. The executive summary of the plan talks about maintaining and enhancing, not correcting, or fixing, he said. Copies of the executive order were distributed for the audience to review.

    State Rep. Keith Slape (R-Jasper) was invited by Irvin to address the panel first.

    Slape said distrust of the government goes back decades when the Buffalo National River was created. Many residents along the river were removed, sometimes by force, from their family farms. He said hard feelings still exist. He said what he wanted to know is what is the "end game" of the BRCC?

    Ward said there is not a certain level or metric that the management plan sets out to achieve. There is the understanding that some projects in the watershed would be able to use assistance. Those projects could be improving a variety of farm management practices, replacing septic tanks or wastewater treatment facilities, controlling feral hogs, or a broad range of things that the committee can be partnered with to provide resources to complete.

    State Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) said the process appears to be locally driven. She asked if local members of the BRCC subcommittees will be given stronger voices when projects are being considered for funding.

    Ward answered in the affirmative. The committee will look heavily to its subcommittees. The subcommittees will include locally elected officials such as county judges, mayors and legislators who are accountable to the public. They will also be expected to bring aboard other local leaders from both the public and private sectors.

    There is a commitment from the committee to look heavily to the subcommittees, but for transparency, once the subcommittees establish their priorities there would be public hearings where they would be talked through with the BRCC, Ward said.

    One thing Ward said he wanted to make clear is that the BRCC has no intent to use the governor's funds to purchase land or put agriculture operations out of business.


  • 26 Oct 2019 7:29 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansasonline

    90 days added for hog-ban comments

    by Emily Walkenhorst | Today at 2:19 a.m.


    People have 88 more days to submit comments on a proposed ban on certain-sized hog farms in the Buffalo National River's watershed.

    That's because the final report of the team studying the impact that C&H Hog Farms had on a Buffalo National River tributary has been published.

    The Big Creek Research and Extension Team posted the 280-page report, with 619 pages of appendices, online Thursday.

    On Friday, the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission voted unanimously to reopen the public comment period on the partial hog farm ban for 90 days from Thursday. The comment period lasts through Jan. 21.

    "The public needs the opportunity to look at it," Commissioner Mike Freeze said of the report.

    Freeze and other commissioners said in July that they wanted to withhold allowing the partial ban to begin going through the rule-making process until the report was completed. At the time, they believed the report would be released imminently. They voted in favor of initiating the rule-making with the understanding that the public comment period could be altered to accommodate the report's release.

    The original comment period closed in September and amassed more than 400 comments. All but two favored the ban.

    Experts reached Friday said they hadn't had much time to scan the report.

    Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, said he wanted to read it before commenting. He said he had read several pages but not much.

    David Peterson, president of the Ozark Society, said the report showed the gravity of phosphorus buildup in soil over time, suggesting adjustments to how C&H was applying its phosphorus-rich manure mixture, called "slurry," to the ground.

    That backs up his group's and other groups' concerns about how farms are advised and required to apply fertilizers to the ground.

    "It actually substantiated some things that we thought were true and had analyzed in the data before," Peterson said.

    As of late Friday, Peterson said he had read fewer than 40 pages, although that was more than many others.

    John Bailey, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said he began reading the report Friday. He'd read the executive summary and conclusions before telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that it appeared to support what the Farm Bureau has said -- that C&H wasn't worsening Big Creek.

    "What I feel like this document says is what we've been trying to say all along, is that there's no environmental impact," he said.

    But, Bailey added, the report makes some observations that the Farm Bureau could take to heart, namely suggestions for how to better apply manure to land to minimize environmental impact.

    "What we're going to have to focus on is, is there a better way to manage this, to keep phosphorus on site," he said.

    Big Creek flows into the Buffalo River more than 6 miles from where C&H abuts it. C&H is permitted to house up to 6,503 hogs, although it normally operated with only about 3,000. It will close by the beginning of next year under a $6.2 million buyout from the state, brokered by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

    Hutchinson focused on the Buffalo in his weekly address Friday. He acknowledged a wide variety of potential threats to the river but vowed to work toward protecting it.

    "We want to preserve this treasured resource," he said. 

    The Big Creek Research and Extension Team, comprised of 10 researchers and several field technicians, did not find that C&H had been contributing to algal blooms or other water quality issues along the Buffalo or Big Creek.

    Researchers found that certain concentrations of nutrients did not appear to have increased since the beginning of the study through the end.

    The final sentence of the report reads, "as long as the integrity of the holding ponds is maintained, the main long-term environmental concerns with CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] lies with land use and nutrient management of the fields permitted to receive slurry."

    On a few occasions, researchers noted that a lack of data on conditions prior to C&H's operations prevented them from drawing conclusions.

    FARM OPENED BEFORE STUDY

    The study did not begin until several months after the farm began operations. That means researchers could not compare their measurements of nutrient concentrations during C&H's normal operations to what they were before C&H opened.

    Grazing, slurry and fertilizer managements on three fields may have increased the potential loss of phosphorus and nitrogen into Big Creek, researchers wrote. But the report said researchers did not have background data, including historical nutrient management and nutrient application to the land.

    The team sampled water from September 2013 until July. That monitoring focused on five things, according to the report: the impact of slurry on soil fertility; nutrient runoff; trends in the water quality of three different spots on the farm; nutrient loads in Big Creek; and trends in nutrient and bacteria concentrations up and downstream of C&H.

    Any additional nutrients applied to C&H's fields should limit the slurry specifically for its phosphorus concentrations, researchers determined. Continued application at the rate it was applied from 2014 to 2018 would result in enough phosphorus in the soil to run off into nearby waters.

    The facility had statistically significant increases in nitrate concentrations in a stream and water well on facility property, researchers concluded. Tests of other substances suggest that the concentrations are not attributable to holding pond manure.

    Two storms in May and December 2015 put large amounts of nutrients in Big Creek. Those storms contributed the majority of the five-year overall nutrient loading into the creek. As a result, researchers recommend that conservation measures to minimize nutrients runoff be focused on the manure and method of application, versus managing the transport of the manure.

    Researchers found phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations in Big Creek to be higher downstream of C&H than from upstream, but not at statistically significant amounts when adjusting for stream flow variability.

    "Concentrations in Big Creek were similar to other watersheds in this region with similar land use, suggesting limited impact of the CAFO on Big Creek at the present time," the report reads. "However, this does not preclude future impacts of agricultural and urban operations in the watershed."

    PARTIAL BAN

    The partial ban is for federally classified medium and large hog farms in the Buffalo National River's watershed. That's a slightly smaller watershed than the whole Buffalo River, which is 15 miles longer than the National River designation.

    Farms are federally classified as small, medium or large. Medium hog farms are defined as having 750 or more swine of more than 55 pounds, or 3,000 or more swine of 55 pounds or less.

    Some comments questioned whether the proposal, as written, would actually prevent hog farms as large as C&H from being constructed within the watershed.

    Hog farms often have combinations of the two weight classes of pigs. The proposed ban does not explain how to calculate whether a hog farm meets the size threshold if combining the two weight classes of pigs.

    Several comments questioned why the proposed ban would be limited to hog farms while other animal farms can cause pollution concerns, as well. Poultry farming in Northwest Arkansas has long been blamed for excess nutrients in the Illinois River in Oklahoma.

    Many comments hit on the same themes: calling the C&H Hog Farms permit a mistake, arguing that the karst topography of the region is unsuitable for sizable hog farms, and/or supporting broader restrictions in the watershed. The suggested restrictions include prohibiting small hog farms, barring other types of concentrated animal-feeding operations, and preventing the transport of hog manure and spread of hog manure on land within the Buffalo River's watershed.

    Not all comments were about the proposed ban on medium and large hog farms.

    The proposal places the entirety of two regulations up for amendment. Those are Regulation 5, which governs liquid animal waste management systems that are not allowed to discharge waste, and Regulation 6, which governs federal wastewater permits that allow for discharge.

    The department altered numerous provisions within Regulation 6. Some were superficial changes from "Regulation" to "Rule" or "Six" to "6," but some, commenters argued, appeared to change permit application requirements and review processes for facilities that aren't animal farms.

    Metro on 10/26/2019

    Print Headline: 90 days added for hog-ban comments

  • 25 Oct 2019 7:14 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
    October 25, 2019

    Governor Hutchinson's Weekly Address
    More Than Just a River

    Governor Hutchinson's weekly radio address can be found in MP3 format and downloaded HERE.

    LITTLE ROCK – The Buffalo National River is 153 miles of Arkansas wilderness and great memories, and today I’d like to share some thoughts about why we must be diligent in protecting it.

    The Buffalo was the first river in the United States to be designated a national river. That happened because so many Arkansans said we want it as a natural river without dams or obstructions.

    Every year, thousands of adventurers brave the whitewater rapids in the upper reaches of the Buffalo or float the more placid waters downstream. Like so many others, my family and I have canoed down the river and hiked along the banks. I have observed Arkansas’s only elk herd in the woods near Ponca.

    The wilderness that is the Buffalo is more than a clear-running river. The land tells much of our history. Three features of the Buffalo are on the National Register of Historic Places: The Big Buffalo Valley Historic District, the Buffalo River Bridge on Highway 7, and the Parker-Hickman Farm-Historic District.

    The Arkansas Department of Heritage is assessing two other sites for possible nomination to the Register – the home sites of Granny Henderson and “Wild Vic” Flowers.

    The very popularity of the Buffalo creates issues, such as litter that washes into the streams, and requires certain accommodations, such as public facilities. The National Park Service is working to improve its waste treatment, which is necessary for its restrooms along the river.

    Some hazards aren’t as obvious or as easy to solve, such as aging municipal wastewater and septic systems, streambank erosion, and the sediment and nutrients that run into tributaries from unpaved roads.

    We want to preserve this treasured resource. We want the families who have lived there for generations to have the resources to continue their good stewardship of this watershed and the river that runs through it.

    As governor, I have a responsibility to protect the Buffalo River.  As an outdoorsman, I have a personal interest in preserving its health and beauty.

    In 2016, I established the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee to address issues of concern in the Buffalo River Watershed. I asked the members of the committee to develop a non-regulatory, watershed-based management plan. In September, I took the next step by establishing the Buffalo River Conservation Committee, which will utilize the watershed management plan to prioritize and fund projects that would be supported by farmers and the local communities.

    I was in law school when I discovered the Buffalo River, and like so many Arkansans, I value the Buffalo as a particularly beautiful part of God’s creation. Let’s work together to safeguard this jewel so that our children can share this natural masterpiece with their children and those who come after.

    CONTACT: Press Shop (press@governor.arkansas.gov or 501.682.3642)

    ###

  • 23 Oct 2019 3:14 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    NWAonline

    BRENDA BLAGG: Bogged down

    Lawmakers put hold on governor’s Buffalo River plan

    by Brenda Blagg | Today at 1:00 a.m.


    Surprise.

    Legislative review and approval of a plan to spend $1 million from the governor's discretionary fund for grants within the Buffalo River watershed didn't happen quite as easily as expected.

    State lawmakers on Friday held up Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request.

    The governor announced last month he wanted to use money from his "rainy day" fund to match another $1 million in private funds promised from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.

    The $2 million sum is supposed to go toward funding conservation and water-quality grants within the watershed of the Buffalo, the nation's first national river.


    That's supposed to be a good thing, intended to help farmers with best practices to protect the river.

    The river, or its protection, has been the subject of long-running debate among preservationists, recreational enthusiasts and those who live and farm nearby.

    The state government is in the process now of buying out C&H Hog Farms, which secured the necessary permits during former Gov. Mike Beebe's administration for a concentrated swine feeding operation near the Buffalo.

    The farm is at Mount Judea in Newton County. It is adjacent to Big Creek, which flows into the Buffalo just 6.6 miles away.

    Hutchinson proposed the $6.2 million buyout earlier this year to resolve the years-long controversy over the hog farm.

    The administration is also in the midst of considering a permanent ban on medium or large hog farms, as classified by the federal government, in the Buffalo's watershed.

    The state has received comments from more than 400 people on the ban. That's just a hint of how intense this continuing controversy is. Most, but not all, of the comments the state received favor a ban of hog farms in the watershed.

    Importantly, the contrary comments came from the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Arkansas Pork Producers Association, defending the environmental record of pork producers and arguing against any ban.

    Their comments are emblematic of concerns from within the agricultural community about how farmers will be impacted by the regulation.

    It will be a while yet before the state can respond to all those comments, many of which are quite specific.


    Eventually, the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, which drafted the proposed regulatory change, will have to submit it for legislative review.

    In the meantime, lawmakers are honed in on that request to spend those rainy day dollars in the Buffalo's watershed.

    State Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, asked the Legislative Council on Friday to withhold those funds from a newly created committee.

    The Buffalo River Conservation Committee, named last month by Gov. Hutchinson, also a Republican, is to decide how the grant money will be spent. The panel is made up of the secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture; Health; Energy and Environment; and Parks, Heritage and Tourism (or their designees).

    Sen. Irvin was upset the governor's office had not met with elected representatives from the watershed before announcing his plans. The way it happened, she said, was "incredibly disrespectful" of those who represent the impacted area. She also questioned just who might decide how the funds are used.

    Others on the Legislative Council backed her up.

    The governor suggested the Legislative Council's failure to approve the transfer of rainy day funds could jeopardize the private funds pledged to the grant program. He also said it would delay the availability of the grants to farmers.

    Nevertheless, the initiative is at least temporarily stalled because the people most affected want to be represented.

    Here's the bottom-line lesson in all of this: The protectors of the Buffalo River got burned years ago when decisions about permitting that huge, potentially polluting hog farm were being made without their knowledge or input.

    Those people, many of whom are devout activists now, will never forget it and may never trust regulators again.

    No matter how well-intentioned Hutchinson's plan may be to provide grants to help protect the Buffalo's watershed, the process must be totally transparent.

    He needs the buy-in of those most affected, including their elected representatives, to calm the deeply rooted controversy that surrounds the Buffalo.

    Commentary on 10/23/2019

    Print Headline: Bogged down

  • 19 Oct 2019 8:31 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansasonline

    State lawmakers stymie $1M for projects in watershed

    by John Moritz | Today at 8:56 a.m.

    Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request to transfer $1 million from state surplus money to fund conservation projects and grants within the Buffalo River Watershed was held up by lawmakers Friday, amid lingering frustrations over the closure of a hog farm near the river.

    Many of the concerns voiced by lawmakers who represent areas along the river dealt with the question of which stakeholders would be given input on the projects.

    In September, Hutchinson created the Buffalo River Conservation Committee to direct grants and projects in the watershed. The move came after the state's $6.2 million buyout of C&H Hog Farms this summer, bringing a close to the farm's controversial existence within the watershed.

    Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, made the motion at Friday's Legislative Council meeting to withhold governor "rainy day" funds from the newly formed committee, accusing the governor's office of not meeting with local officials before requesting the money.

    Members of the committee, she feared, could include landowners from the four-county area around the river who do not necessarily live in the region.

    "Y'all single-handedly did this without discussing it with any of us who are elected to represent this area to work through these issues with our constituents, with the Buffalo National River," Irvin said. "We have been through so much on this issue, and we have tried so hard to work through it. It is incredibly disrespectful, it is ridiculous that this happened the way it happened."

    By a voice vote, the council approved Irvin's motion to withhold the money until the governor's office and state officials meet with elected representatives from the watershed.

    In a statement Friday, the governor said the failure to approve the transfer of rainy day funds could further jeopardize an additional $1 million in private funds pledged by the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.

    "The failure to approve the appropriation today will delay this money being available to farmers," Hutchinson said. "But I do hope the Legislature will return soon to approve the funding."

    In an Oct. 1 letter to the chairmen of the Legislative Council, Hutchinson wrote that the rainy day funds would be used to support projects "including but not limited to the following -- voluntary best management practices for farmers and land owners, improvements to wastewater and septic systems for cities and counties within the watershed, and reduction of sediment runoff from unpaved roads within the watershed."

    The wording of that letter -- specifically the phrase "but not limited to" -- drew concerns from several lawmakers, including Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.

    "That's way too broad for what I think this body's supposed to do as far as oversight," Hickey said.

    Rice raised similar concerns earlier in the week, when he said the circumstances of C&H Hog Farms' closure had caused misgivings to ripple through the communities of small- and medium-sized farmers.

    The hog farm, which opened in 2013 and held thousands of hogs, prompted push-back over the years from environmental groups concerned about the possibility of manure polluting the river. Although the Buffalo River was found to be impaired by E. coli, no government agency had traced the bacteria back to the farm.

    The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality ordered the farm to close last year, before Hutchinson agreed to the buyout with the farm's owners this summer.

    "Our small farms, animal farms, are concerned," Rice said. "Just concerns from the accumulation of events, on the rate change, extensive oversight and testing without violations, the accusations without factual substance, is enough in cost and aggravation to push some of our small farmers out of business or even to keep them from even going into business."

    State Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward attempted to alleviate the concerns raised by Rice and other lawmakers Friday, saying that landowners would not be required to participate in projects funded by the $1 million transfer. The Department of Agriculture will hold onto the money from the rainy day fund until it is approved for projects by the conservation committee, according to the governor's letter.

    Keeping the scope of the projects open-ended will allow local landowners to decide the best use for the money, Ward said.

    "If I was to write down a list of things that the money would be used for, that would be in effect, Little Rock saying, 'Here's what you're going to do in this area," Ward said. "We're going to let the landowners identify what's important and what's not important."

    The governor's office said Friday that the members of subcommittees of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee had not yet been appointed.

    Full committee members include Ward; Energy and Environment Secretary Becky Keogh; Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst; and Health Secretary Nathaniel Smith.

    Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and Emily Walkenhorst of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  • 17 Oct 2019 10:19 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    NWAonline - Democrat Gazette

    We and many others continue the message that the Buffalo National River has earned a special place in the hearts and minds of Arkansans, so much so that it deserves protection from harmful activities that would destroy its ecology and beauty. Early this week, some lawmakers declined to recommend approval of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request to spend $1 million on conservation efforts within the river's watershed. They didn't suggest rejecting it, either, so at least there's that. Responding to what they say are farmers' concerns that protecting the Buffalo River watershed is just a first step of environmental activism that could do harm to the state's agricultural heritage, the lawmakers passed the funding on with no recommendation at all to the larger Legislative Council, which meets Friday. We certainly hope lawmakers on Friday stand up for this grand river and back the governor's effort to work with, not against, agricultural interests to protect their livelihoods at the same time the state protects the national river. Agriculture is vital to Arkansas' past and future. One doesn't have to lose to preserve and protect the other. The governor has taken a worthwhile and needed approach to keeping the Buffalo River clean for generations.

  • 16 Oct 2019 7:41 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansasonline

    $1M transfer for Buffalo National River watershed clears panel

    by Michael R. Wickline 

    A committee of lawmakers Tuesday skipped making a recommendation to the Legislative Council on a request by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to transfer $1 million to the state Department of Agriculture to support grants and projects within the Buffalo National River watershed.

    At the behest of Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, the council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee forwarded the Republican governor's request to the Legislative Council without suggesting that the council approve or reject the transfer of so-called rainy-day funds.

    This way, there will be more lawmakers on hand for further discussion during Friday's council meeting because the Legislative Council has more members, Rice said before the committee approved his motion in a voice vote.

    In a letter dated Oct. 1 to the Legislative Council's co-chairmen, Hutchinson said these rainy-day funds "will be used to support grants and projects within the Buffalo River Watershed, including but not limited to the following -- voluntary best management practices for farmers and land owners, improvements to wastewater and septic systems for cities and counties within the watershed, and reduction of sediment runoff from unpaved roads within the watershed."

    The newly formed Buffalo River Conservation Committee and its subcommittees will identify projects and distribute funds with the aim of improving water quality and promoting conservation practices, the governor wrote in his letter to the co-chairmen, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.

    The Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation also have collectively pledged $1 million toward the Buffalo River Conservation Committee.

    Hutchinson's creation of the conservation committee last month is the latest endeavor from his office regarding the Buffalo River, which has been the subject of heated political debate in recent years on how best to protect it.

    During Tuesday's meeting, Rice referred to the governor's letter and said that because of what happened in the C&H Hog Farms case, "we have got a lot of young ag people that are concerned about their future that they may become litigants in their livelihood simply doing what they know as the best practices."

    In the C&H Hog Farms case, "this Legislature agreed to, and I supported, a buyout of a private business that had no violations, that technically had not done anything wrong," he said. Doing that has "raised concerns with a lot of people."

    Rice asked state Budget Administrator Jake Bleed to elaborate on the funding request.

    "This is an opportunity, we hope, for folks in the watershed to take advantage of the funding, which has been requested today to get ahead of some potential issues that might cause a water-quality problem later on down the road," Bleed said.

    The intent of this program "is not to create litigation, obviously," he said. "It is not to create regulations. It is not to impose anything on anybody."

    But Rice told Bleed, "You understand the reason for concerns throughout this process. It's not just one thing. It's the culmination of many things. I don't blame people being concerned about their future."

    On June 21, the Legislative Council granted conditional authority to Bledsoe and Wardlaw to approve Hutchinson's request to use up to $6.2 million in state rainy-day funds to obtain a conservation easement to shut down the hog farm, which is in the Buffalo National River watershed.

    But the council asked the co-chairmen to first be satisfied that the state has a first-lien position on the easement, meaning the state would be superior to any lien holder regarding the use of the land.

    Hutchinson's assurances to Bledsoe and Wardlaw that his office is checking for any liens on the hog farm prompted the two to sign off on that funding request a few weeks later.

    C&H Hog Farms will be paid at the closing of escrow when all its swine have been removed, and funds will be concurrently exchanged for a conservative easement, also held in escrow, said Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism spokeswoman Melissa Whitfield after Tuesday's meeting.

    C&H Hog Farms will be paid $6.2 million, plus interest and less escrow expenses, probably no earlier than January 2020, she said. The funds include $3.7 million from the rainy-day fund, $1.5 million from the department and $1 million from the Nature Conservancy, Whitfield said.

    During Tuesday's meeting, Rice also raised concerns about the state buying land from the Nature Conservancy. He cited two such purchases in Garland County -- one in recent months and one in 2018.

    He said he questioned state forestry officials recently about a $1.4 million purchase of 420 acres from the Nature Conservancy in the Hot Springs area and "was told [the purchase is] totally different and it doesn't have anything to do with" the Buffalo River Watershed situation.

    "The timing of it was a concern to me," he said. 

    The Forestry Division bought 360.83 acres within the Hot Springs Recharge Area in Garland County from the Nature Conservancy in May 2018 for $822,000, Department of Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said. That purchase used funds from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, he said.

    Ward said the department's Forestry Division is purchasing 408.44 acres within the same area in Garland County from the Nature Conservancy using funds from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Legacy grant.

    The expected price is $1,459,180, he said.

    Both items are associated with preserving the Hot Springs Recharge Area, he said.

    "All properties acquired in the Hot Springs Recharge Area are voluntary purchases with willing buyers and willing sellers," Ward said in a written statement. "No funds used within the Hot Springs Recharge Area have been used within the Buffalo River Watershed."

    Metro on 10/16/2019

  • 14 Oct 2019 10:28 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansasonline

    Hog farm proposal garners support

    But commenters note ban’s limits

    by Emily Walkenhorst |  

    Hundreds of comments have poured in supporting a proposed permanent ban on federally classified medium or large hog farms in the Buffalo National River's watershed.

    But a handful of comments expressed concerns that, during the process of state regulators editing existing rules to incorporate the ban, significant changes were made to aspects of state rules that had nothing to do with hog farms.

    People had several weeks to submit comments on the proposed ban, with the comment period ending Sept. 23. By law, the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, which proposed the ban, must read and respond to each comment before altering and/or passing along the proposal for legislative review.

    Just more than 400 people submitted comments, with nearly all in favor of a ban. 

    The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reviewed the comments after obtaining them through a public-records request. Unlike in previous rule-making proposals, the department has not posted the comments online.

    Many comments hit on the same themes: calling the C&H Hog Farms permit a mistake, arguing that the karst topography of the region is unsuitable for sizable hog farms, and/or supporting broader restrictions in the watershed. The suggested restrictions include prohibiting small hog farms, barring other types of concentrated animal-feeding operations, and preventing the transport of hog manure and spread of hog manure on land within the Buffalo River's watershed.

    Most comments came from Arkansas, largely from the Northwest.

    Only two comments opposed any ban. The Arkansas Farm Bureau contended that state regulators have "no scientific evidence showing animal agriculture is causing an environmental impact." The Farm Bureau said the department was letting "emotion" rather than "sound science" drive the regulation changes.

    The Arkansas Pork Producers Association said the proposed regulation changes were a "slippery slope" to further action in the state's other watersheds for "extraordinary resource" waters. The proposal is precautionary, the comment states, adding that "Our state's pork producers have an excellent environmental record."

    COMMENTERS' CONCERNS

    Several comments questioned why the proposed ban would be limited to hog farms while other animal farms can cause pollution concerns, as well. Poultry farming in Northwest Arkansas has long been blamed for excess nutrients in the Illinois River in Oklahoma.

    Some comments questioned whether the proposal, as written, would actually prevent hog farms as large as C&H from being constructed in the watershed.

    The White River Waterkeeper organization argued that hog farms exceeding the sizes of "medium" or "large" may still be allowed under the language of the proposal, which refers to farms meeting the definition of a concentrated animal-feeding operation.

    Further, the comment states, the change to Regulation 5 refers to "confined animal feeding operations," and the change to Regulation 6 refers to "concentrated animal feeding operations." Those are two distinct technical terms meaning different things. The White River Waterkeeper asked whether that would unintentionally allow some farms to obtain permits despite the ban.

    Farms are federally classified as small, medium or large. Medium hog farms are defined as having 750 or more swine of more than 55 pounds, or 3,000 or more swine of 55 pounds or less.

    Hog farms often have combinations of the two weight classes of pigs. The proposed ban does not explain how to calculate whether a hog farm meets the size threshold if combining the two weight classes of pigs, the White River Waterkeeper contended.

    The draft rules could be interpreted as allowing one less hog than the maximum for both weight classes -- 749 bigger hogs and 2,999 smaller hogs, Ross Noland, an attorney and the executive director of the Buffalo River Foundation, wrote in his comment. "This would comprise a major facility with more swine waste present than that which C&H produced."

    Medium and large hog farms have been banned since 2014 but only on a temporary basis, pending the conclusion of the Big Creek Research and Extension Team's research on the effect of C&H Hog Farms on Big Creek and the Buffalo National River.

    C&H is a large-scale hog farm that sits within the Buffalo National River's watershed. It has been the subject of yearslong environmental concerns and will close in the coming months after reaching a $6.2 million buyout agreement with the state in June.

    After signing the buyout agreement with C&H owners, Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked state environmental regulators to petition to make the temporary ban permanent.

    The final research report is expected in the coming weeks.

    OTHER CHANGES

    Not all comments were about the proposed ban on medium and large hog farms.

    The proposal places the entirety of two regulations up for amendment. Those are Regulation 5, which governs liquid animal waste management systems that are not allowed to discharge waste, and Regulation 6, which governs federal wastewater permits that allow for discharge.

    The department altered numerous provisions within Regulation 6. Some were superficial changes from "Regulation" to "Rule" or "Six" to "6," but some, commenters argued, appeared to change permit application requirements and review processes for facilities that aren't animal farms.

    The Beaver Water District opposed several changes, including one that deletes the requirement to disinfect facilities "when necessary" to meet state water-quality standards and another that deletes the requirement to remove nutrients from domestic wastewater effluent "where appropriate." Another change, the group's letter to the department states, would remove many of the permitting requirements for stormwater discharges associated with small construction sites.

    The American Fisheries Society and the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance both raised questions about a change allowing higher fecal coliform concentrations in wastewater discharges to extraordinary resource waters and to natural and scenic waterways.

    Previously, no concentrations of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water were allowed in those waters. The department has proposed changing the limit to a "geometric mean" -- a type of average -- of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, meaning a sample could exceed that concentration as long as the geometric mean remained below 200.

    "Whether by averages or geometric means, the application of any mathematical formula should not be allowed to obscure dangerous peak readings when public health is of concern," the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance's comment reads. "Parents allow their children to swim in ERWs on the assumption that this designation means the water is safe for human contact."

    The White River Waterkeeper noted that the change is an attempt to be consistent with a separate rule, Regulation 2. But, the organization wrote in its comment, the department has not explained whether the new or the previous language was originally intended. The previous language also listed a limit of an arithmetic mean of 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water for other water bodies. Geometric means are always lower than arithmetic means, the White River Waterkeeper wrote.

    The department issued an executive summary with its proposed changes but didn't mention any reasons for why it altered those specific elements of the regulation. For regulation chapters not accompanied with an explanation, the department's summary states that officials made clarifications, minor corrections and changes to make the regulation consistent with other statutes.

    The department did not respond to a request from the Democrat-Gazette for comment on the changes.

    A Section on 10/14/2019

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