There are several reasons why Oklahoma has such an impressive national ranking for water quality, but a couple of conservation officials can distill it down to two very specific factors.
One is cooperation among the numerous groups that depend on the cleanliness of the 78,500 miles of rivers and streams in Oklahoma, and the other has to do with the strong measuring techniques the state uses to present positive results.
“One of the things that we’re proudest about in Oklahoma is that we’ve really been able to showcase how successful the conservation partnership is between local landowners, conservationist districts, the NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) and the state conservation agency,” says Shanon Phillips, director of water quality for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. “When those folks are all working together, we can very successfully and in an economic fashion solve water quality problems.
“It’s not rocket science, and all those groups are willing to solve the problem if you give them the means to do so. That’s what our program is really an example of, that we can do so without a heavy hand of regulation.”
Of course, it helps that all concerned can see the fruits of their combined efforts. And that’s where the strength of monitoring plays a central role, according to Gary O’Neill of the NRCS.
“The key is having the monitoring, and that’s why Oklahoma has been able to show some of the successes,” says O’Neill, NRCS state conservationist. “That is what’s really important when it comes to water quality work. You can do a lot of great things, but if you can’t measure the change over a long period of time, you can’t show the progress.”
Oklahoma Ranks First
The progress has been substantial. Oklahoma has ranked as the nation’s top state for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus to its rivers and streams through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Non-Point Source Program (Section 319). The goal of the program is to reduce 8.5 million pounds of nitrogen and 2.5 million pounds of phosphorus in waterways each year in the United States, and Oklahoma has led the way in that effort the last two years.
Animal Waste Efforts
The animal waste management plans of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry have also helped to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loads to watersheds by requiring poultry producers to transfer waste.
“That’s really a testament of the effectiveness of the conservation practices that our programs put on the ground,” Phillips says of the overall efforts.
Furthermore, Oklahoma has a high ranking when it comes to the EPA’s 303(d) list, which is a list of impaired and threatened waters that states must improve under the Clean Water Act. The EPA asks states to clean up at least one body of water each year and publish what it calls “success stories” on the agency’s website. Oklahoma, which is fourth overall in states that are in compliance with the 303(d) list, led the country with 11 success stories in 2012.
O’Neill, whose NRCS office works closely with Phillips’ staff, says farmers and ranchers are generally open to efforts to ensure that Oklahoma’s watersheds are clean and healthy. It helps that the approach is heavy on volunteering and light on regulations.
“When you have a voluntary program and you’re able to provide some assistance, farmers want to do the right thing for the environment,” he says. “It usually turns out to be a pretty good win-win situation.”