July 25, 2008

Funds Available to Aid Illinois River Conservation Efforts

By D. E. Smoot, Muskogee Phoenix, Okla.

Jul. 25--Property owners along the Illinois River have access to funding for the implementation of conservation efforts designed to reduce nutrient and bacteria levels in the scenic river.

The funding is being made available through the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and local conservation districts in Adair, Cherokee and Delaware counties. The cost-sharing program will be funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Oklahoma and participating landowners.

"This project will expand upon previous and current efforts to cost-share implementation of best management practices to reduce nutrient and bacteria levels in the Oklahoma portion of the Illinois River watershed," said Tashina Mitchell, project coordinator for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. "The ... cost-share program is an expansion on the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, but only in the Illinois River watershed."

Water quality has been a growing concern for what some consider the crown jewel of the state's scenic river system. The explosive growth of the poultry industry within the watershed basin during the past two decades is believed by many to have contributed to deteriorating water quality in the Illinois River and Tenkiller Lake.

Other nonpoint pollution sources the program aims to address are rural septic systems, heavy use areas, watering facilities, and ponds and wells designed for animal use.

Officials have studied a number of ways to combat nutrient loading of the Illinois River and its tributaries. Efforts have intensified to create riparian buffers along the streams. Those vegetated areas along streams have proven beneficial in protecting water resources from nonpoint source pollutants such as poultry litter. Riparian buffers also provide bank stabilization and aquatic and wildlife habitat.

Save the Illinois River President Kurt Robinson said the funds provided by the EPA and matched by the state and stakeholders are welcomed and applauded by STIR.

"Buffer areas, which prohibit development of lands along the banks of the river while allowing vegetation to flourish, will act as filters to polluted runoff that has plagued the river for decades," Robinson said. "Without underestimating the importance of this and previous riparian programs, STIR believes that stopping the pollution at the source rather than filtering it at the river would have the greater impact for future water quality in the Illinois River."

Robinson said halting the application of poultry waste within the Illinois River watershed "is the key to a clean-water future for this precious natural resource."

Mitchell said the best management practices eligible for cost-share funding include those dealing with animal feeding and waste storage facilities. Eligible property owners, Mitchell said, should contact representatives from the county conservation districts where the property is located or the Water Quality Division of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission for application information.

"It is anticipated that not all applications will be funded at this time due to the high interest in applying conservation practices," Mitchell said. "Successful applicants with high-priority resource concerns will be contacted to develop contracts to obligate the current funding allocation."

Applications for which funding is unavailable will be maintained for future consideration, Mitchell said, if the applicant chooses to remain on a waiting list.


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