The State Of Our Drinking Water

Water Report

Thick fog covering Beaver lake after a couple days of heavy rainfall.

By Terrah Baker

The Beaver Lake Watershed Symposium held Sept. 27 at the Carroll Electric building in Huntsville was designed to teach about the water quality of Beaver Lake, the outreach programs taking place and best management practices that are being applied within the watershed.

NWA Council “Protects” Lake

Considering statistics show NWA is adding 30 residents per day and 200,000 since 1990, it’s clear the lake created in the mid-1960’s could see some strains. That’s why President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Malone of the Northwest Arkansas Council was there to explain the protection strategy that’s being implemented to protect Beaver Lake.

Short History

Malone explained that Beaver Lake has always been one of the success stories of NWA that started when the Army Corp of Engineers dug a reservoir in 1957 and completed the treatment plant and lake nearly 10 years later. The purpose was to provide drinking water and recreation for NWA residence, which it still does to this day. In fact, one-in-seven, or over 400,000 people in Arkansas get their drinking water from the lake. The Beaver Lake dam also produces 172 kilowatt hours of electricity each year, and generates $43 million in tourism annually.

In 2007 following one of the first major droughts of the last eight years, people began to ask if there was enough water to last residents and for how long. They were also noticing the taste and odor caused by algae was becoming more frequent. So the NWA Council began a campaign that would tend to the reservoir in order to stop the degradation.

Maintaining Quality

Some of the key points in their efforts are to maintain and improve quality, even in the face of population and pollutant growth; create a stakeholder group that’s inclusive and combines industry with activists, and scientists with communicators; to make all of the Best Management Practices (BMPs) voluntary, and to continue education on the importance of the lake.

Health Of Watershed

John Pennington, executive director of the Beaver Watershed Alliance, discussed their part in maintaining the quality of the lake. Their approach is pinpointing pollution sources and minimizing those to restore impaired streams that enter the lake — like West Fork and the Lower White rivers that are classified as impaired because of the high level of pollutants and subsequent unhealthy nutrient levels.

He also said that bringing together stakeholder groups was not only important, but necessary, as any long-term plan needs large support.

Problem With Pollutants

One of the largest problems the lake is facing is sediment run-off which is estimated to increase at 25 tons per year by 2050, with phosphorus — a symptom of the presence of pollutants — increasing to 12 tons per year. To curb this problem, the Alliance is working to prevent stream-bank erosion, stop urban and rural storm-water runoff, and implement sediment control for businesses — mainly construction and large ag. — using BMPs.

They’re doing this through outreach and projects like the Rain Garden Academy that teaches residents how to construct a filter system for their roof runoff that provides beauty and practical solutions. In West Fork and in War Eagle, Alliance staff are meeting with land and/or pasture owners to educate on the BMPs ,like keeping cattle further from streams and putting up barriers to catch sediment at construction sites.

Overall Lake Quality

In the 1980s, researchers began to see degradation in the quality of water in the lake. In the late ’80s water quality improved considerably due to Fayetteville’s major upgrade to their waste water treatment facility that discharges into White River, a tributary of Beaver Lake. But by the early 2000s, the quality of water in Beaver Lake was once again declining attributed mostly to nonpoint pollution (sediment and nutrients from construction, agriculture and urban storm-water runoff). Dr. Bob Morgan, manager of environmental quality for Beaver Water District, said there are now indications that with better waste water facilities in NWA, farmers following nutrient management practices, and cities implementing storm-water management programs, the level of phosphorus in the lake is going back down.

“There are some things that are increasing, however, mostly related to algae,” Morgan said. “But we are seeing a response from the efforts of our watershed residents.”

After eight years of collecting water quality data on Beaver Lake during the annual Secchi Day event — where volunteers with boats help gather samples — researchers still don’t feel confident in making serious statistical comparisons. Secchi depth varies naturally because of different weather patterns.

“It is too soon to state with any confidence whether the lake is improving or degrading,” according to Morgan.

What they can say with confidence is that during drought years of 2006 and 2012, algae is not as prevalent, making the lake more transparent than during flood years.

“The water is clearer because during drought years we don’t have as many pollutants washing into the watershed as we do when major floods occur,” Morgan explained.

Resident Impact And Participation

What this means for residents is that when rains come, pollutants enter the lake and algae growth heightens. So far in Beaver Lake this has led to a slight, and experts say harmless, musty odor and taste in drinking water during fall season when the algae begin to die off. The musty odor and taste coincides with lake turnover, the time when cool water from the bottom of the lake mixes with warmer water from the surface.

While the growth of blue-green algae Morgan spoke of occurs naturally in freshwater lakes and ponds according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in large concentrations it can not only reduce the recreational value of a water-body due to unpleasant appearances and odors, but also be harmful to humans and animals.

While the toxins produced by the algae are not well understood, in high concentrations symptoms to humans can include diarrhea, vomiting, skin or throat irritation, allergic reaction or breathing difficulties. When taken in large quantities and in severe cases, it can even affect the nervous system and liver function.

Morgan also said the algae can complicate the treatment of drinking water, taking more energy to get the water to standard.

While one opinion survey said over half of residents don’t feel they can make a difference, experts think and know otherwise. To learn what you can do to help keep your drinking water safe, or about any of the projects that are taking place, including ongoing water quality monitoring, contact the Alliance at 479-970-3550 or Beaver Water District at 479-756-3651.

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