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Oklahoma, Arkansas Feud Over River Water Standards


WEST SILOAM SPRINGS, Okla. — The Illinois River is drab green when it rushes into Oklahoma just south of here, but it's not Arkansas mud that dirties the water.

Oklahoma blames phosphorus from Arkansas sewage, animal waste and fertilizer. The phosphorus promotes the growth of algae that produce the green tint, which generally worsens as the weather warms and the river slows.

The color, the foul odor and the danger to aquatic life have led Oklahoma to propose tighter water quality standards for the Illinois and the state's five other scenic rivers--standards Arkansas would be forced to follow.

The proposal has triggered back-and-forth threats between the neighboring governors--like-minded Republicans who are otherwise friends--in the states' second major fight over the Illinois River.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board has approved a limit of 0.037 parts per million of phosphorus in the rivers, to be achieved in 10 years. Phosphorus levels now are nearly seven times that in places.

The standards will take effect unless the Oklahoma Legislature or Gov. Frank Keating strikes them down.

Arkansas must adhere to the standards under a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said upstream states are subject to downriver water quality regulations. That ruling stemmed from an earlier fight between the two states.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has said the proposed standards are impossible to achieve and will harm development. "You'd have to bulldoze every house, business and highway in northwest Arkansas and relocate everyone out of the area to meet those standards," he said in April.

Earlier this year, Huckabee twice told Oklahoma to back off on the phosphorus standards or he would place tougher limits on chloride in the Arkansas River, which flows east through Oklahoma into Arkansas.

Keating responded by calling for negotiations, but he also threatened to sue Arkansas if it refused to follow his state's standards. Arkansas has since backed down, saying it has no plans to change its chloride standards.

Keating and Huckabee, who have gone duck hunting and eat dinner together at governors' association meetings, tempered their tough talk by stressing their friendship.

"They're both doing what they think is in the best interest of their states," Keating spokesman Dan Mahoney said. "Keating has no ill feeling toward Gov. Huckabee."

The two states first fought over pollution in the Illinois in 1982 when the city of Fayetteville, Ark., wanted to build a new wastewater treatment plant on the river. Arkansas won in the Supreme Court, but the court also ruled that upstream states are subject to downriver states' water quality regulations.

Ed Fite, administrator of Oklahoma Scenic Rivers, said the Illinois is still fairly healthy. But it is changing from a river rich in animals to one that is filling with plants, he said.

The algae growth turns the water green, creates a foul smell and taste and threatens fish by reducing the river's oxygen level, he said.

Fite said scientists have determined that populous northwestern Arkansas, home to hundreds of big poultry farms, contributes more than four times the phosphorus in the river that Oklahoma does.

Morril Herriman, executive vice president of the Poultry Federation, an industry group, said the proposed limit is unreasonable.

To comply with the new standards, Arkansas would have to upgrade waste treatment plants, restrict chicken waste and fertilizer applications or use extensive buffer strips along the river.

Arkansas already uses some of those methods, but it is not known whether expanding them will be enough, said Earl Smith, chief of the water management division of the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

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