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Preserving Stream’s Pristine Waters

July 20, 2008

By John David Sutter, The Oklahoman

Jul. 20–ON SPRING CREEK — To leap into the cool blue waters of this hidden northeast Oklahoma creek is to jump back to a time when water was clean and life was simple, locals say.

“It’s very spiritual,” said Jennifer Owen, who swims here almost every day. “It’s been life-changing for me.”

Spring Creek — with its deep channels and pure blue waters — is one of only five water bodies in Oklahoma known to meet all of the state’s water quality standards, according to a draft report recently released by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Many lakes and rivers in Oklahoma aren’t tested at all. Those tested often are found to be polluted with sediment that has run in from eroded hills or with feces washed down mostly from animal farms.

Owen and other volunteers have worked for 14 years to keep Spring Creek clean. The creek flows a total of 34 miles, passing through the gaps between steep, forested hills as it wanders west from its start in the fields of Kansas, OK, to the place where it dumps into the north end of Fort Gibson Lake.

On that journey, it passes by neighbors who disagree about what the future will or should hold for the stream.

Some want more government protection — maybe laws to prevent development, or a state designation to declare the river’s pristine state as a benchmark for all others to follow. Others say landowners are doing a fine job keeping the river clean all on their own, and government intervention only would hurt things.

Biological ‘jewel’ At Spring Creek, there’s a lot to preserve, said Shanon Phillips, assistant director of water quality at the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

Many Oklahoma streams are eroded, wide and shallow, and sometimes filled with sediment if roads are constructed nearby. That straightens and flattens the waterway.

But Spring Creek is still narrow and deep in some places.

Water creeps in and out of the creek from underground, where it travels slowly through unusually porous rock.

The cool groundwater and deep pools create unique pockets of water that large fish and usual bugs can call home.

Biologists have long studied the creek.

Scientists from state universities use it is as the clean comparison when trying to decide how polluted other water bodies are.

Alicia Osborne, a former high school biology teacher who volunteers to take water quality tests on Spring Creek, said the waterway is a “jewel” for Oklahoma.

At high risk for pollution Spring Creek catches water from a limited area — only 232 square miles, or about a third of the size of Oklahoma City.

Although the area is small and thinly populated, Spring Creek’s ecology and geography put it at more risk for contamination than the waters in other parts of the state, Phillips said. Even so, it has maintained acceptable water quality while many nearby creeks and rivers in similar ecosystems — including the state’s prized Illinois River — do not meet water quality standards.

The difference, Phillips said, is local involvement.

Spring Creek Coalition In 1994, Owen — a laid-back character who tucks a .38 special into the back of her jeans and paints her toenails hot pink — realized she had to do something or her creek would become polluted like so many of the rest.

So she founded the Spring Creek Coalition, a group of people who own land on the creek and who are concerned about the local environment.

Education has been the group’s main focus. Owen has hosted seminars on poultry pollution, environmentally friendly development, local bugs, fish and land management practices.

Her thinking is that if people who live near the creek know what resources they have to protect and have simple tools to do the work themselves, then Spring Creek will remain pristine for her three children when they inherit her ranch.

It’s grassroots politics at its finest, she said, and watching the local environmental efforts succeed as they butted heads with state agencies restored Owen’s faith in the democratic process, she said.

When the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation passed a rule to introduce trout — a non-native predator fish — into the creek for fishing, the coalition sued the state agency and won in 2006.

The coalition also defeated a proposed landfill, which they said would have polluted the area’s vulnerable groundwater, and consequently Spring Creek, residents said.

In the last legislative session, locals backed a bill to give the waterway a new kind of special protection under state law.

That move has proved the most controversial locally.

The bill would have designated Spring Creek as a “reference stream,” which essentially means it could be used by scientists who are looking for a clean stream to compare with polluted waters.

The Oklahoma Farm Bureau perceived that as a threat and worked to remove language from the bill that would have offered Spring Creek additional protection under state statutes, said Marla Peek, the farming group’s director of regulatory affairs.

Peek said state regulations would set a precedent for further regulations, which would be bad for farmers.

Owen says she’ll push for similar legislation in the next session.

Other locals want to push Spring Creek onto the list of scenic rivers.

“Spring Creek is a pretty pristine creek, so I think scenic rivers (status) would pretty much freeze the creek in time,” said Steve Kelley, a Tulsa attorney who owns a house on the creek. “You couldn’t develop it. You couldn’t do things that would lower the standard of water that’s already there, so I think it would be a good thing to do.”

Putting bend back in The creek is not without its problems. Road construction along Spring Creek threatens to cause erosion that may widen the creek, making it less hospitable for fish, Owen said.

Cherokee County is heading that project, she said. Commissioners contacted about the project did not return calls.

Owen also worries about the town of Peggs, which draws water from the creek with the permission of Grand River Dam Authority.

Owen and Osborne, the former teacher, said the town should get its water from a more stable source. Overdrawing water from the creek would kill aquatic life, they said.

These concerns about the ecosystem would likely be worse were it not for a state-funded project that sought to take Spring Creek back closer to its natural state.

The $125,000 project literally put a curve back into the creek.

Phillips, of the conservation commission, said the federally funded project increased deep-water fish life by 2 1/2 times.

Sixty smallmouth bass were found after the project, she said.

None existed before.

Lying behind the environmental concerns of the Spring Creek Coalition is a deep-rooted aversion to more people moving to the area.

Locals have found their paradise, and they don’t want newcomers to spoil it.

“I don’t want it to be exploited. I don’t want people to know where it is,” Osborne said.

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