Environment: Out of thousands that are monitored...

Five bodies of water ruled clean

by John David Sutter

The Oklahoman, June 8, 2008

Only five bodies of water of the thousands of lakes and streams monitored in Oklahoma were found to be clear of harmful levels of pollution, according to a draft government report released last week by the state Department of Environmental Quality. The rest of the waters watched by the state either weren't tested or are polluted beyond federal standards.

The fact that even five waters came up clean is being seen as cause for celebration.

This is the first time any of the Oklahoma waters watched by the state have met all of their water quality standards, said Mark Derichsweiler, an engineering manager in the water quality division of the state agency.

Still, 94 percent of lake acres in the state do not meet federal water quality standards, according to data from the report, called "water Quality in Oklahoma-2008". And nearly 75 percent of the rivers the state tests are impaired by some form of pollution, according to federal and state benchmarks.

A total of 106 water bodies have been added to the state's list of polluted waters since 2006, and only 45 were removed, the agency said.

State reports on water quality are required every two years by the Clean Water Act, and the state environmental agency will submit its draft report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval. You can have your say in the process by attending a water quality meeting at state agency on June 19.

Derichsweiler said findings from the draft report can be misleading, since most of the state's 4,064 water bodies are not monitored for quality. Additionally, some waters are not included in the report at all, he said.

Other clean streams and lakes may exist, Derichsweiler said, but they aren't tested, so they can't be listed in the report. He attributed the five clean streams to the agency gathering more information, not to a change in water quality

The state doesn't have enough money to monitor all of its waters, said J.D. Strong, chief of staff for the state secretary of the environment. He added that the situation is not unusual for other states.

What's the problem?

Bacteria such as E. coli and pathogens from feces were the most common type of water pollutants listed for streams in the report. For lakes, the most common was lack of oxygen, which can kill aquatic life.

Sources of pollution were listed most often as "unknown" for lakes and rivers, with livestock grazing noted as the second most common pollution source in both.

Strong said bacterial contamination, which can cause stomach illnesses or death in extreme cases, should not be taken lightly.

We're using standards that have been in place for a long time," he said. "They're health-based standards, and it is alarming and it is significant, the amount of bacterial impairment we have across the state."

Four of the five clean waters - Spring Creek, Fourteen Mile Creek, Saline Creek and Five Mile Creek - are found near Lake Hudson in northeast Oklahoma. The other, East Fork Creek, is a branch of the Glover River in southeast Oklahoma, Derichsweiler said.

Earl Hatley, an environmentalist and river-keeper of the Grand River watershed, said the fact that Spring Creek is clean is a testament to locals and landowners volunteering to fight pollution there.

"They've saved that stream themselves," he said.

Jennifer Owen, founder of the Spring Creek Coalition, which works to keep the creek clean, said the creek is closed off by a private dam, so it avoids pollution from other water sources.

"It's a very unique ecosystem that has kind of been locked in time," she said.

She credited volunteers and area landowners for keeping the stream clean, but added that more work with state agencies should be done to enforce pollution controls.

She's tried unsuccessfully to get the state to recognize the creek as an example of what other streams should look like, in terms of water quality and aquatic life.

Hatley said it's inaccurate to say that any of Oklahoma's rivers, lakes or streams meet all water quality standards, since all of the state's waters are under a fish advisory because of high mercury levels.

He said state officials have been slow to tell state residents about the dangers of mercury. The state agency says children and women of child-bearing age should limit meals of fish caught in Oklahoma.

"You can't take your grandchild, as I would like to do, to catch the fish in your own pond," he said.

Derichsweiler said the state-wide mercury advisory was not included in the report. Heave metal contamination advisories for people who eat fish near the Tar Creek Superfund Site, in northeast Oklahoma, also were not included, he said, because that advisory was published after a reporting deadline.

Hatley criticized the state for being behind on water quality tests and analysis.

"There are obviously many, many thousands of streams across Oklahoma, and we have limited resources to be able to go out and collect samples and run lab tests," he said.

Hatley praised the fact that five streams now meet water quality standards, but he said it is "pathetic" that so many streams and lakes remain polluted in the state.

By the numbers: Water quality