Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Bad news for river
By Mike Masterson
National Park Service scientists and UA geosciences professor emeritus John Van Brahana have collaborated on a revealing report that details reason for concern over increasing water contamination in the Buffalo National River watershed.
The extensive report goes into detail about declining oxygen levels and rising bacterial contamination in the watershed since the hog factory at Mount Judea began spraying millions of gallons onto fields around Big Creek, a major tributary of the country's first national river flowing six miles downstream.
I believe this report alone further proves the need for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to schedule a fact-finding conference involving every interested party from special interests to the state's environmental regulators to determine through facts and science what already is being discovered in our precious river's watershed as a result of this factory's wrongheaded location.
Yes, I've heard the arguments about private-property rights, the right to farm (this isn't really a farm as we know them), the karst formations and caves that underlie this factory's spray field and the more than 5,000 gallons a day our state allows to leak from two massive waste lagoons.
Created by Brahana and Chuck Bitting and Faron Usrey of the National Park Service, the report was presented to the Ozark Society. It lays out data they've collected and analyzed from streams, wells and springs, including Brahana's groundwater dye-testing of property around the factory.
Their findings present an ominous picture of changing water quality in the fragile watershed during the two-plus years since the factory (supplied and supported by Cargill Inc. of Minnesota) brought in 6,500 swine and the mountain of potent, untreated waste they generate.
The study begins by saying the national river was established by Congress in 1972 in order "to conserve and interpret the unique scenic and scientific features and to preserve as a free-flowing stream an important segment of the Buffalo River in Arkansas for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations."
It notes that on Nov. 1, 2011, the state Department of Environmental Quality created a class of General Permits under control of the state's Pollution Control and Ecology Commission to allow confined animal feeding operations. I prefer to call them domestic edible animal factories.
The agency received 87 comments from 13 individuals or businesses, mostly from agribusiness companies or those involved in factory farms, so the new permitting plan slipped through mostly unnoticed by the public.
It was the science, as Brahana explained, that most interested me. Studies showed the dissolved oxygen concentrations in Big Creek reveals a daily pattern of high dissolved oxygen concentrations during daylight hours and low concentrations at night.
During the day, algae in Big Creek generates oxygen, which is added to the water as it absorbs sunlight. At night this algae absorbs oxygen from the water, thus reducing oxygen available for fish and other aquatic life.
This is a natural variation observed in most streams and rivers. However, if measurements show a stream falls lower than the critical dissolved oxygen level, it's said to be in an impaired state. The critical level determined in this part of the Ozarks is 6 parts per million. Big Creek fell below the level for 120 nighttime hours last summer.
While not the first time low dissolved oxygen values have been observed in Big Creek, the findings indicate the Buffalo River valley already was approaching capacity to accommodate nutrients from all animal wastes, which causes algae to proliferate, even before the state permitted the factory.
"Our sampling of wells, springs and streams in the valley during the summer of 2013 (before waste spreading) reinforce the idea that the natural system was already near saturation, one of many facts ADEQ failed to note when they issued the permit," said Brahana.
He said the duration lower nighttime dissolved oxygen finding last summer "is consistent with an added burden of waste from 6,500 pigs. Local landowners along the creek noticed the algae was particularly luxuriant last summer after about six months of waste spreading on nearby fields."
Concentrations of E. coli bacteria (from the guts of warm-blooded animals) in Big Creek and upstream and downstream from its confluence with the Buffalo also were disturbing. The report says prior to spreading in 2013, the "average" E. coli contribution from Big Creek increased in the Buffalo by more than 37 percent. "Values of E. coli from 2014 taken as grab samples (randomly) show a marked increase from 2013," Brahana said.
"These observations are consistent and indicate Big Creek and its ecosystem are being stressed, not necessarily by the hog factory alone, but by total agricultural loading from this valley. This impaired water is flowing directly into the Buffalo National River," added Brahana, who said even more exacting water-quality studies remain under way.
Mike Masterson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 02/10/2015
Note: See the PowerPoint presentation of this meeting linked on the BRWA Home Page.