Jewel of Denial

by Drew Edmondson


There was a time when waste was dumped in the streets of our cities, chamber pots were emptied out windows, and trash was washed by rainwater wherever it flowed. Plagues and epidemics were strong arguments against the sustainability of those practices. We created sewers and sewage treatment plants.

There was a time when industry could channel its effluent directly into the nearest river or creek— there were no laws suggesting otherwise. We called that “point source” pollution and grew averse to it when the occasional river caught fire, or when children required tetanus shots after a dip in the local attractive nuisance. We passed laws against it and created an agency to enforce those laws.

There is a time, today, when, in the countryside, we permit waste to be deposited on the land in massive quantities, with the certain knowledge that the chemical constituents of that waste will find its way into our waterways. We know the cause and we know the effects—algae growth, sucks the oxygen out of the water, choking fish and animal life, changing the biosphere, causing infections, odor and blight.

Oklahoma’s geographic and geological diversity has produced no finer jewel than the Illinois River watershed in the eastern part of the state. The rivers in that watershed course through Adair, Delaware, and Cherokee Counties, into Lake Tenkiller in Sequoyah County, and ultimately into the Arkansas River and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

A half-century ago, the Illinois River and its tributaries, the Baron Fork, Flint Creek, Peache- ater Creek, and others, were crystal-clear, pristine streams. They flowed into Tenkiller, which put blue into a cloudy day and which attracted scuba divers from across the nation because of its clarity. Parents and children could play in the waters, boaters could fish or just enjoy the serenity. You could stand waist deep and see your feet on the rocky bottom, and the rocks were free from scum.

No longer.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste are deposited annually on land within the water-shed, primarily from commercial poultry operations. Inexorably, the nitrogen and phosphorous from the waste finds its way to the waters. Plants on land can use most of the nitrogen but only a fraction of the phosphorous—the rest ultimately fertilizes the water rather than the plants on land. This is called “non-point source” pollution and it is regulated by agriculture departments, not environmental agencies.

Lawsuits have been filed and threatened. The city of Tulsa sued over its reservoirs, Eucha and Spavinaw, and negotiated for the removal of over 70 percent of the waste from those watersheds. A federal court has yet to rule on a similar lawsuit brought by the State over the Illinois watershed. Municipalities have spent millions for upgrades to treat water taken from the same sources, to get the phosphorous levels down to the tough standards that have been set. But the poultry companies, supported by armies of lawyers and millions of dollars for lobbying, continue their practice of desecration and waste. Their bottom line is profit, not water.

My children, when they were very young, played in these waters—they remember these waters as they once were. My grandchildren may never have that joy.

At some point, we will learn that the surface application of poultry waste, ostensibly as fertilizer, is simply not a sustainable practice. We will adopt meaningful regulations, enforceable regulations, and things will slowly improve, perhaps in time to save the watershed.

But, with all the disputes over water, with the battles between urban and rural areas, between native Oklahomans and economic interests, north and south, east and west, it seems axiomatic that the very least we can expect is that we not waste this resource by polluting it. When the people who revere the water begin speaking at the same decibel level as the monied interests who profit from its ruin, change willcome.

The Illinois River, its tributaries and its reservoir, are worth saving.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 17. Sept. 1, 2012.