MIKE MASTERSON: Tainted water
by Mike Masterson
Groundwater contamination is on the rise in our Buffalo National River's watershed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and other sources.
Yet none of the agencies involved in this finding (USGS, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality [cough] and the National Park Service) is able to pinpoint the source of algae blooms that are choking miles of the country's first national river in Newton County.
A Sunday front-page news story by Democrat-Gazette environmental reporter Emily Walkenhorst outlined the group's findings.
Here are what I derived as the most significant findings, based on the article:
First and foremost, the findings presented to the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee remain incomplete and would take years of additional research to complete, although the USGS lacks the funding to do so. The USGS conducted tests to determine the source of increased contamination from excessive nitrates and phosphorus. Those are focused on human, cattle and poultry waste as potential culprits where Mill Creek enters the Buffalo, while similar testing for swine apparently is not planned farther downstream where Big Creek enters the river.That matters since C&H Hog Farms with raw-waste spray fields on or near Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo, has been dispensing nutrient-rich waste for more than five years atop fractured karst subsurface.
The Department of Environmental Quality denied the factory's request for a renewed operating permit last week based primarily on water quality-related studies and matters related to environmental safety. The controversy over allowing C&H to operate under its original (since expired) permit has intensified after 14.3 miles of the national river, as well as the entire length of Big Creek, are proposed to be designated "impaired" waterbodies due to E. coli bacteria, pathogens, or in the case of the final 3.7 miles along Big Creek, low dissolved-oxygen levels.
According to the news account, the studies found the Buffalo was strewn with 70 miles of algae this year, which interfered with tourists' late summer float trips along the stream. That represents about half of the 150-mile-long river, 135 miles of which flow through the national park. In the algae study, Dr. Billy Justus, an aquatic research biologist with USGS' Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center in Little Rock, was unable to tie C&H hogs to the steady increase in mesh-like "filamentous" algae during recent summers and needed five or six more years to draw those conclusions. But funding isn't available. Justus also said groundwater pollution is a significant problem since many in Newton County, most of which is in the Buffalo watershed, use wells for drinking water.
Dr. Nathaniel Smith, state health officer and a member of the Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee, wondered why genetic testing isn't being conducted for swine waste, as well as humans, poultry and cattle. Some contend feral hogs in the watershed are a possible source of pollution in the Buffalo and such studies could possibly confirm or dispel that theory. He was told the Mill Creek area didn't have enough feral hogs to justify that.
David Peterson, president of the Ozark Society, said he'd like to verify the number: "I'd like to have the supposed issue of feral hogs put to rest once and for all."
Genetic sequence testing hopefully would identify which animals specifically are contributing waste to Big Creek and surrounding its confluence with the Buffalo, although my understanding is that distinguishing with certainty between feral and domestic hog waste isn't yet genetically possible.
I asked Gordon Watkins, who heads the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, for his thoughts, based on his reading.
"C&H soil tests show all fields are ... in excess of what crops can utilize," he told me. "ADEQ cited this as a reason for the permit denial. And they continue to apply more. I think the source(s) of the algae problem may be more challenging to chase down. "We're interested in dye tracing on Big Creek to identify where the losing section above the mouth is emerging. The most obvious answer is in the gaining stretch of the Buffalo downstream from Carver but dye tracing is needed to confirm. If true, that would show a subterranean 'shortcut' and could shed light on the algae problem, as well as explain why nutrients in Big Creek are higher upstream than at the mouth. ... We can't keep waiting while the river continues to degrade."
Watkins also referred to the insidious nature of phosphorus already accumulated in the soil, crannies and caves that characterize the fractured karst subsurface, which dye testing shows rapidly transports groundwater for miles in different directions. After five years of spreading millions of gallons of waste on the fields around Big Creek, there's no way to know how much of such hidden "legacy phosphorus" has lodged in subterranean passages. Meanwhile, additional excessive nutrients are released by rainfall and flooding to inevitably run off into Big Creek or leach into the karst and groundwater springs for decades or longer.