Another Temporary Truce in the Arkansas/Oklahoma Water Wars

Posted on April 25, 2013 by Allan Gates

After decades of sparring over nutrient loading in the Illinois River, and following several short term extensions of a previous truce, Arkansas and Oklahoma recently executed an agreement, the “Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions”, that establishes a procedural framework for attempting to resolve their long running trans-boundary water quality dispute.

The Illinois River heads up in a rapidly developing section of Northwest Arkansas and flows west into a comparatively undeveloped portion of Northeast Oklahoma, where the river is designated by state statute as a scenic river.  For more than two decades Oklahoma has worked to reduce the amount of nutrients, and particularly phosphorus, discharged into the Illinois River watershed.  In 2002 Oklahoma adopted a numeric water quality criterion for Total Phosphorus that many considered impossible to attain in a developed watershed.  In an effort to avoid litigation over the validity of the numeric criterion, Arkansas and Oklahoma entered into an agreement in 2003 known as the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions.  This agreement provided, among other things, that:  (i) Oklahoma would postpone for 10 years the date on which the numeric criterion would be fully effective; (ii) Arkansas sources would take a number of steps to reduce phosphorus discharges; and (iii) Oklahoma would review the existing numeric criterion, with an opportunity for Arkansas representatives to participate, before the end of the ten year period to determine whether the numeric criterion should be changed.

The ten year truce created by the Statement of Joint Principles and Actions was originally scheduled to expire in July 2012.  During the ten year period Arkansas sources made significant progress in reducing the amount of phosphorus they discharged in the watershed.  As a result, phosphorus levels in the Illinois River began to decline and most observers agreed that conditions in the river were significantly improved.  Towards the end of the ten year period Oklahoma undertook a review, with full participation by representatives of Arkansas, EPA, and the Cherokee Nation.  The review ended in a sharply divided report, with Oklahoma representatives stating that no change in the numeric phosphorus criterion was warranted and Arkansas representative stating that significant change was necessary.

As the end of the ten year truce approached, officials from Arkansas and Oklahoma began negotiations once again on how to avoid litigation.  Focus on the potential for costly litigation was sharpened by the fact that EPA had publicly commenced work on a Phosphorus TMDL for the entire Illinois River watershed.  After several agreements on short term extensions of the July 2012 deadline, Arkansas and Oklahoma reached agreement in February 2013 on a Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions.  This new agreement provides, among other things, that Arkansas and Oklahoma will fund a joint three year water quality study using EPA protocols to determine the threshold Total Phosphorus levels at which shifts in algal species or biomass production occur that result in undesirable aesthetic or water quality conditions.  Oklahoma and Arkansas agree in the Second Statement to be bound by the findings of the joint study, and Oklahoma agrees to adopt a new numeric criterion for Total Phosphorus in the Illinois River if the results of the joint study are significantly different from the existing criterion (i.e., more than -0.010 mg/l or +0.010 mg/l than the existing .037 mg/l criterion).  During the term of the Second Statement of Joint Principles and Actions, both states agree not to initiate or maintain litigation contrary to the terms of the agreement, and the statute of limitations on all claims is extended.  Oklahoma agrees that it will postpone for the duration of the new agreement the date on which its existing, hotly disputed numeric criterion is to be fully effective.

EPA was not a party to the negotiation of the new agreement and it has not announced any formal position on its effect.  It is not clear what impact the new agreement will have on EPA’s work to develop a TMDL for Phosphorus in the Illinois River watershed or on the various NPDES permits for POTWs on the Illinois River that are currently pending review in EPA Region 6.

Transboundary Water Quality Disputes -- What Once Was Old Is New Again

Posted on February 11, 2011 by Allan Gates

There is nothing new about transboundary water quality disputes under the Clean Water Act. Introductory classes on environmental law commonly trace the history of Supreme Court decisions arising from Milwaukee’s battles with Illinois over sewer discharges into Lake Michigan, the challenge Vermonters’ raised against New York paper mill discharges into Lake Champlain, and Oklahoma’s objections to a permit EPA issued to a sewage treatment plant in Arkansas. Given the length of time that the Clean Water Act program has been in place and the large number of instances in which upstream discharges drain into and therefore arguably affect water quality in downstream states, one would expect that most of the relevant legal questions would be well-settled. Recently, however, transboundary water quality disputes have arisen with increasing frequency.

Coal bed methane development in Wyoming has given rise to disputes with Montana over salinity impacts in the Powder and Tongue Rivers. Efforts by the state of Washington to protect dissolved oxygen levels in Spokane Lake have prompted a dispute over Washington’s attempt to impose wasteload allocations that would limit nutrient discharges by upstream sources in Idaho. Oklahoma’s efforts to restore the Illinois River to pristine scenic river conditions have resulted in recurrent and steadily intensifying disputes with agricultural interests on both sides of the border and point sources located predominantly in the headwaters on the Arkansas side. EPA’s imposition of nutrient water quality standards in Florida could have direct effects on discharges originating in Georgia; and the agency’s showcase multi-state TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay has recently precipitated challenges by state and national agricultural interests. In what undoubtedly is the most dramatic transboundary claim under the Clean Water Act, environmental groups have filed a petition with EPA asking the Agency to impose nutrient water quality standards and adopt TMDLs for the main stem of the Mississippi River, all of its tributaries, and certain related coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

These recent disputes have recurring themes that arise out of weaknesses or unresolved questions regarding the Clean Water Act program. The statute empowers each state to exercise sovereign independence in adopting water quality standards that apply within the state’s own borders (so long as minimum federal standards are met), but the statute does little to address or even give consideration to the interests of other states that may be directly affected by those standards. Transboundary disputes frequently involve situations in which the regulatory burdens fall disproportionately on interests in one state while the resulting environmental benefits are realized largely or entirely in another state, but the Clean Water Act does nothing to address questions of transboundary fairness. Transboundary disputes frequently involve regulatory decisions that have enormous financial and long term planning consequences, but the decisions are often based upon limited factual data, imperfect scientific analysis, and less than comprehensive computer modeling. The Clean Water Act offers no process for seeking to assure that the quality of the decision making will be commensurate with the gravity of the consequences at stake. Indeed, the program largely makes the magnitude of financial consequences simply irrelevant. Disparities between the magnitude of the consequences and the limited quality of analysis and data supporting the regulatory decision are particularly problematic when the regulatory decision is being made by one jurisdiction that has no political accountability to the other.

It is perhaps no surprise that most of the recent transboundary water quality disputes are arising out of efforts to regulate the discharge of nutrients. Nutrient pollution is the largest unresolved water quality issue nationally; and the adverse effects of excess nutrients frequently occur at locations far downstream from the original source. The fact that most of the current transboundary water quality disputes involve nutrient pollution probably makes the disputes even more difficult than normal to resolve. Nutrient pollution has no simple, universally accepted means of measurement. It is costly and time consuming to establish a clear causal link between a given discharge of nutrients and an observed adverse effect; and many of the most important sources of nutrient pollution are non-point sources which are beyond direct control under the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, this appears to be a recipe for increased frustration and controversy.
Transboundary water quality disputes may not be a new phenomenon, but it does not appear that we are any closer to finding a good way to resolve them.