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Protecting Arkansas' Water Quality...Or Not?

PHOTO: Arkansas river looking across to Little Rock.  Image credit: Belinda Hankins Miller
PHOTO: Arkansas river looking across to Little Rock. Image credit: Belinda Hankins Miller
March 27, 2013

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Arkansans can boast some of the best overall water quality in the nation, but conservation groups say a bill in the Legislature could jeopardize that.

State law now treats every water source as potential drinking water, but House Bill 1929 would change that in order to make the permitting process easier for wastewater discharge. Environmental and sportsmen's groups agree that the permitting process should be streamlined but call this proposal "drastic," saying it strips away too many clean-water protections.

Dan Scheiman, bird conservation director for Audubon Arkansas, said he foresees unintended consequences if it passes.

"House Bill 1929 is inconsistent with the federal Clean Water Act," he said, "so it will certainly be challenged by the EPA and, therefore, be impossible for ADEQ to implement."

A battle with the EPA could have financial consequences for the state, Scheiman said. However, HB 1929 sailed through the House of Representatives and is in a Senate committee this week.

The Arkansas Environmental Federation, an industry group that supports the bill, says Arkansas uses strict EPA guidelines that were never intended as permit limits, giving the state tougher water quality rules than any surrounding state.

Amendments to the bill offer some broad protections for lakes, but Arkansas Sierra Club spokesman Glen Hooks says the health of rivers and streams would be at risk.

"It's going to lead to more industrial pollution in our waters and increased costs for fisheries, for municipal wastewater treatment plants and for people who like to recreate," he said. "This is a problem that could easily be solved with a smaller solution."

The Sierra Club and other opponents are recommending that the bill be referred instead to an interim study committee to find ways to fix the permitting problem without compromising water quality. Supporters of the bill say they filed it because a stakeholder workgroup formed by the ADEQ didn't sufficiently address this issue.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - AR