Anna Weeks of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel recently set up a meeting between several environmental groups and Alan Gates, the lawyer from Little Rock who wrote the current Arkansas nutrient trading law, and who now represents the 4 cities in Northwest Arkansas which hope to establish nutrient trading in the Illinois River watershed.  The basic idea is this.  Suppose that a watershed has a goal of meeting nutrient limits, say total maximum daily loads (TMDL) of total phosphorous (TP).  There are two primary sources: point sources (wastewater facilities, industry, etc.) and nonpoint sources (agriculture, urban/suburban runoff).  If a point source finds that it is much more expensive to reduce their discharge of TP than the cost from non-point sources, then the point source can pay the nonpoint source to reduce TP discharges, and take credit for the reduction. It’s a win for the watershed. TP levels are reduced and everyone gains financially.

The Illinois River watershed has had a long history of excessive poultry litter application, causing very high TP loads and massive algae blooms in Oklahoma streams and lakes.  This problem culminated in 1992 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas must abide by a stringent Oklahoma TP limit, 0.037 mg/L for Oklahoma scenic rivers like the Illinois River (the EPA limit is 0.1 mg/L).  Brian Haggard (currently a member of the Big Creek Research and Extension Team) and others found that more than 40% of TP was coming from municipal wastewater facilities from 1997-2000, and TP levels sometimes reached 10 mg/L below the Springdale wastewater plant. It is not too difficult to require municipal plants to reduce TP levels, all-be-it expensive, and today discharges are required to be less than 1 mg/L. But these discharges are still too high, and the legacy TP from the poultry farms will continue to enter the river for years. Non-point sources are also much more difficult to regulate. Indeed, eliminating all municipal TP discharge might not allow the 0.037 mg/L limit to be reached. The expanding population in northwest Arkansas will force expanded and more expensive waste water treatment for TP. Hence, the idea for nutrient trading.

Will it work for northwest Arkansas municipalities to pay farmers and others to reduce their TP discharge, which will then be credited to the municipalities as if they actually reduced their load, and therefore their construction costs will be less? Alan Gates thinks the key to success is to have a general plan with few specifics which would handicap creative solutions. As currently formed, the Director of ADEQ will have the authority to approve Nutrient Credit Generating Projects. If a project involves nonpoint activities, it will be submitted to the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission for review. There may be no inspections for compliance by anyone but the project proposer – a major weakness.

The responsibility for generating and monitoring the project is entirely with the project proposer, although there are a few safe guards. For instance, no project can be approved unless the project will reduce the nutrient load below baseline requirements. But this presents three major problems. Haggard found that flow weighted TP concentrations varied between 0.20 to .53 mg/L, 2001-2007. Total loads varied between 64,000 kg to over 426,000 kg, 1997 – 2008. So,

i) What is the baseline? Current levels, the target (0.037 mg/L), or something else.
ii) With large variability in yearly TP, how can it be determined if there is a reduction?
iii) Who actually will do the longitudinal study of stream parameters?

The Illinois River Watershed

An EPA critique of a Pennsylvania trading plan says, “Unlike point source discharges with NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge System) permits, agricultural operations cannot quantifiably measure source loading from their fields.” The Arkansas idea, it seems, is to assume that landowners would employ “best management practices” and the extent of these would result in a assumed reduction of TP runoff in lbs. per acre per year. This would be unreliable (a guess really) and potentially unfair or subject to deceit. Pennsylvania requires measures of manure, fertilizer, air deposition, residual inputs, minus the estimated crop intake to arrive at an estimate of potential discharge reduction and then adjusts for watershed characteristics.

The proposed nutrient trading is not limited to northwest Arkansas or to trading only within a single watershed. Although Alan assured us that no other section of the state would utilize nutrient trading this is a red flag. If the plan is inappropriate for other areas of the state, why not state it in the proposal. I can imagine nutrient trading anywhere including the Buffalo River Watershed and among CAFO’s.

Given the geography of northwest Arkansas, the municipalities are in headwater streams and the agricultural land is between them and Oklahoma border, it seems as if the beneficiaries of any nutrient trading would be in Oklahoma, not stretches of river in Arkansas, although the effect might be small.

Section 3 C) of the bill seemingly specifically forbids ADEQ visits to non-point sources for the purpose of compliance. An odd requirement for the approving agency.