The upper White River watershed encompasses over 300 miles of river. From headwaters to confluence with the Mississippi River, the White River flows approximately 720 miles and crosses two states. The upper White River watershed is divided into three main sub-basins: Beaver Reservoir, Bull Shoals Lake and James River. While the basin is primarily rural and agricultural, growing communities like Springfield and Branson, Missouri and Berryville, Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers, Arkansas are adding many demands to the water resources which can threaten long-term water quality.
Home to over a million people, the upper White River Basin is comprised of ten counties in northwest Arkansas and nine in southwest Missouri, covering an area of over 14,000 square miles. Since the Foundation of Ozarks Water Watch in 2001, the population of this region has substantially grown, with the average population growth at 8.5%. Some counties, like Benton County in Arkansas and Christian County in Missouri, have seen growth over 27% in the past five years alone. Adding to the population growth and development risks, is the fact that the upper White River watershed is situated primarily atop mantled karst topography. The karst landscape typical of the Ozarks region is characterized by underground streams, caves and sinkholes formed by slowly dissolved bedrock. As water penetrates cracks and fractures within the rock it travels though a network of underground systems and enters aquifers and water tables, making it exceedingly vulnerable to contamination.
Water Quality Concerns
Excessive nutrient loading in streams can come from urban and agricultural development, or what’s called “non-point sources”, as well as from “point sources” like wastewater treatment plant discharge. These wastes are rich in plant nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from human and animal fecal matter, a byproduct of digestion. Point sources are generally regulated by state and federal agencies while non-point sources are generally not regulated but addressed through education, incentives and voluntary action. Excessive plant nutrient in streams and lakes causes over-growth of algae and a condition known as eutrophication. Water quality problems result when dense concentrations of algae choke out the native aquatic species and reduce water clarity and recreational uses. Large amounts of decaying algae decreases dissolved oxygen in the water and may result in fish kills. Ammonia, a form of nitrogen, is also released from decaying algae and, in excessive amounts may cause tissue damage to fish. The natural occurrence of nitrogen and phosphorus in streams varies from one geographical region to another and comes from natural soil erosion, wildlife fecal matter and decomposition of organic material such as fallen leaves.
Nitrogen and phosphorus are major plant nutrients essential for growth of aquatic vegetation and form the basis of aquatic food chains, but these concentrations are low in natural streams due to a high removal rate by vegetation and lack of excessive inputs. Three major sources of plant nutrients in the upper White River watershed are:
1) Discharges from sewage treatment plants. Point-sources of pollution, such as municipal wastewater treatment plants, are currently regulated by state agencies and must maintain a permit which is used to monitor pollution levels in their discharge.
2) Polluted stormwater runoff from poultry industry waste litter spread on fields as fertilizer and from expanding urban developments. While some stormwater runoff pollution sources are regulated, such as large animal feeding operations or lager municipalities, many are not regulated or permitted. Ozarks Water Watch focuses many of its projects and public education programs on this non-point source pollution as we encourage people and communities to do their part in protecting their water resources. In addition to education, we have coordinated projects to demonstrate technologies and practices to capture and filter stormwater runoff from developed areas. Projects include the Kimberling City Center Pervious Pavers project and the Lake Atalanta Sediment Reduction and LID Demonstration project.
3) Wastewater from home septic systems in the watershed that are not properly installed or maintained. Many of the 40,000+individual septic systems near the lakes of the upper White River fail due to improper maintenance or soil conditions not suitable for septic systems. Our projects addressing home wastewater systems have included testing of better technologies, training for septic system installers, maintenance service rebates and education programs for homeowners and funding to help people update and replace their septic systems that are failing, inadequate or improperly installed. See our Wastewater Projects page for current projects and programs.