Monitoring of the Buffalo National River in the area of a Newton County industrial hog farm showed runoff from a tributary sent E. coli concentrations above safe standards on the river for a month during 2014. While the study isn't conclusive, it does show potential for harm to the Buffalo, and that monitoring by the National Park Service will continue.
That's the gist of a presentation Thursday evening by NPS aquatic biologist Faron D. Usrey at Arkansas State University Mountain Home. The program was co-hosted by the ASUMH Stream Team and Friends of the White and North Fork Rivers.
C&H Hog Farms received clearance in 2012 from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality for a feeding operation on Big Creek near Mount Judea for more than 6,000 sows and piglets. It's located five miles from the Buffalo.
Usrey told the audience that the operation was to have had 630 acres for application of hog waste, but has been using only a little more than 400 acres — 43 percent of which is in the Big Creek flood plain — to distribute 4,238,423 gallons of hog manure annually. That began in December 2013.
Since news of the hog farm first broke, there have been concerns that the operation poses a threat to the Buffalo, the country's first national river. The NPS had no jurisdiction over the area beyond the Buffalo's boundaries, according to Usrey, and received little input from state and federal agencies associated with authorizing the hog farm.
Monitoring the Buffalo
As background, Usrey explained to the audience of about 100, that while the NPS began monitoring the Buffalo's water quality in 1985, its priorities changed after a Marble Falls Sewer District lift station on Mill Creek failed after the ice storm of 2009. It dumped 6,000 gallons of waste a day into the creek. He said none of that ran into the Buffalo, but it did make the NPS shift its priorities to protecting people from poor water quality.
The Buffalo gets about 1.1 million visitors a year, and Usrey told the audience that April through August is the busy season for the river, with people canoeing, camping, swimming, hiking, picnicking and other activities. About 30 percent of those activities are on the upper and middle stretches of the river. He said annually the Buffalo generates about $47 million for Arkansas, with about $41 million coming from out of the area.
Between 2009 and 2012, NPS found, for the most part, the Buffalo's E. coli levels were below state Health Department safe standards, according to Usrey. E. coli can cause water-borne illnesses in people. However, it was learned that while about half the river's tributaries did develop a high E. coli level during some periods, they did not present a problem to the Buffalo itself.
"That's good news," said Usrey, noting that the study showed Big Creek did not have high E. coli.
E. coli spikes
After the hog farm began operation, NPS monitored Big Creek and two points on the Buffalo above and below the confluence of the two streams. Usrey said they took five samples a month from those sites between March 2013 and this January. He said they found spikes last year when Big Creek and the Buffalo at the monitoring sites were out of compliance with Health Department standards.
For two months between March and July 2014, Big Creek was above the safe standard for E. coli, and the Buffalo was higher than the safe standard for one month, according to figures presented by Usrey. Last year's runoff was higher because of more rain in the spring than in 2013 and would be expected to produce more bacteria in the runoff, according to the biologist.
So, to determine if the high E. coli on Big Creek was more a result of the rainy conditions than the hog farm, last fall NPS added two more monitoring sites on the river. One is below the Upper Buffalo Wilderness and the other is on the Little Buffalo River.
According to information provided by Usrey, with this spring's rains, they hope to determine if there is higher bacteria count in other tributaries because of the runoff, or if the higher concentration is unique to Big Creek.
What to do
One audience member asked what would happen if there was a big flood in that area. "Depends," Usrey replied, explaining the key factor would be if any hog waste had been applied to the fields beforehand.
The worst-case scenario, he said, would be a big flood before summer washing large amounts of bacteria into Big Creek and the Buffalo — which could send it downstream to the White River — then the bacteria settling into the river, reproducing and sucking the oxygen out of the water.
A big concern, said Usrey, is what NPS could do in the event of a high E. coli count. Speaking "off the hip," he said they have signs they could put up, and could make news releases warning about the situation. However, unlike a lake or the coast, the river is flowing, he said.
"If we put up signs, where are we going to put them?" he asked.
An audience member asked what could they do to help NPS, and another said write Gov. Asa Hutchinson, since the ADEQ is responsible for allowing the hog farm. Usrey agreed, adding, "and I will give him this same presentation."
Usrey pointed out what could be a key factor in how the state reacts to future findings. He said the hog farm is not a large employer, and is not that large a part of Newton County's tax base, compared to $41 million the Buffalo brings into Arkansas each year. The state would have to consider that, he said.
"That might be the deciding factor, not because they love the environment," said Usrey.