Ten years later, Illinois river improvement money to be handed out by Arkansas group

More than ten years after $1.5 million was appropriated to improve the Illinois River, an Arkansas commission is finally ready to begin handing out the money.

The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission plans to distribute the money to farmers and others who want to adopt practices aimed at improving the condition of the river that runs through eastern Oklahoma. The money will first be given to the Illinois River Watershed Partnership which is a Cave Springs nonprofit organization dedicated to cleaning up the river according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Ryan Benefield, Deputy Director of the Commission explained the Commission received the $1.5 million from the Arkansas Legislature in 2007. The money was for the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program run by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

He told the newspaper the commission spent $100,000 of the funds but at the time, could not locate enough applicants for the remaining $1.4 million.

The commission decided to offer up the rest of the funds this year to the partnership to use in a state program, rather than a federal one, he said. The commission will have members on the program’s advisory board.

The partnership will decide which applicants to grant funds to, although it is not yet accepting applications. Nicole Hardiman, executive director of the partnership, said she hopes to do so around “the holidays” in November.

Farmers will have to provide about a 25 percent match.



The river has been degraded for decades because of excess phosphorus commonly blamed on poultry farming and the use of poultry litter as fertilizer in Northwest Arkansas. Wastewater utilities also have undergone changes to reduce phosphorus discharges into the river.

The project is one in a long line of efforts to improve the river for years, as negotiations continue between Arkansas and Oklahoma over what the river’s standard of phosphorus should be.

The money can go toward numerous activities: fencing off streams from cattle, forest improvement, prescribed grazing and stream habitat improvements, among other things, Benefield said.


“We’re really excited for the opportunity to partner with ANRC and the state,” Hardiman said. “And we’re happy the state’s investing this money in the Illinois River watershed.”

Ed Brocksmith, a founder of Save The Illinois River in Tahlequah, Okla., said the number of projects “makes my head spin.” What he and others have wanted for years is a Total Maximum Daily Load study that would determine limits to wastewater discharge permits and other activities in the watershed designed to improve the river’s conditions.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has declined to list the Illinois River in several places and tributaries on its impaired waters list in a category that would require such a study and limitations. Instead, the agency has argued that a voluntary watershed management plan is sufficient for ensuring improvements to the river’s and tributaries’ excess pathogens.