UACES Facebook Extension stewardship programs continue to help improve waterway quality across the state
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Extension stewardship programs continue to help improve waterway quality across the state

Feb. 16, 2024

By Ryan McGeeney
U of A System Division of Agriculture

 Fast Facts:

  • Arkansas Watershed Steward Program, other extension programs helping to lower stream pollution throughout Arkansas
  • Satellite imagery from EPA has illuminated increasing complexity of streams throughout state

(938 words)
(Newsrooms: With satellite imagery)

LITTLE ROCK — Throughout thousands of miles of rivers and streams, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has long been a leader in reducing pollution in waterways across the state.

FROM MILES ABOVE — This image from the U.S. Geologic Survey illuminated some of the many tributaries to the Mississippi River. (Image courtesy USGS.)

John Pennington, extension water quality educator for the Division of Agriculture, leads the Arkansas Watershed Steward Program. It’s just one of several efforts by the Division of Agriculture to help improve and maintain the state’s surface and groundwater, in both quality and quantity.

“We’ve got dozens of success stories, looking at projects and their outcomes,” Pennington said. “Although sometimes it can be hard for folks to understand that when they see an alarming headline.”

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a broad assessment of the nation’s streams and waterways, finding in part that “rivers and streams remain stubbornly polluted with nutrients that contaminate drinking water and fuel a gigantic dead zone for aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico,” according to reporting from The Associated Press.

Pennington said that not only is Arkansas an exception to that trend, some public reaction to the assessment has misunderstood the actual situation.

“It’s important to take EPA data in context,” Pennington said.

More miles

The first EPA assessment of the waters of Arkansas took place in 1988, surveying about 8,700 out of an estimated 11,900 miles of waterways. The assessment found about 4,100 miles — nearly half — were “impaired,” meaning they fell short of the EPA’s water quality standards for one or more of the streams’ designated uses. These standards are set on a state-by-state basis in accordance with EPA guidance.

Nearly 20 years later, advancements in satellite imagery technology helped make increasing numbers of smaller waterways visible, leading surveyors to recalculate the total length of Arkansas waterways at more than 87,600 miles.

Between 2004-2006, more than 9,850 miles of Arkansas streams were assessed, with more than 65 percent of all areas meeting all EPA standards.

“In 2018, which is the last EPA-approved water quality assessment for the state of Arkansas, 11,430 miles were assessed,” Pennington said. “More than 7,400 miles were meeting the use standards — about 65 percent attained. That’s a big improvement over 1988.

“But if you take a stream that has, for example, three designated uses — recreation, drinking, agriculture, etc. — and water quality doesn’t meet the standard for any of those uses, it’s listed as impaired,” he said. “If we manage to improve the water quality so that the standards are met for two of the three uses, that’s a huge improvement — but the stream is still labeled as impaired. So things can also improve significantly without showing up on paper.”

Additionally, Pennington noted that stream data from any given point in time is just a snapshot — waterways change constantly, as do the external factors affecting them. Likewise, advances in both survey sampling and satellite imaging technology should not be underestimated.

“EPA data from 40 years ago should not be used to compare against EPA data today with equivalence,” he said. “It’s comparing apples to oranges.”

Technological advancements

Pennington said that not only have mitigation and restoration efforts reversed the overall percentage of assessed river miles in Arkansas achieving the EPA standards, they have also done so within the considerably larger context of stream miles now being assessed by modern survey and imagery techniques.

“We have seen great improvement, moving from 75 percent non-attainment in 1988 to 65 percent attainment — on two-and-a-half times as many monitored stream miles,” he said. “This is a success! 

“Extension, our partners and stakeholders throughout the state have been working to achieve non-point source pollution goals for the state for over 40 years at least, and it shows,” he said. “Our farmers do a great job and too often take undue blame for water quality issues.

“Many non-farming citizens do a great job also,” Pennington said. “Everyone has a role to play in protecting water quality, and every farmer I know throughout the state wants to use the least amount of fertilizer possible and keep it on the farm. This is something that research has shown that many non-farming citizens may not understand.”

Nutrient management

Pennington said the Arkansas Watershed Steward program is helping to advance the state’s voluntary nutrient reduction strategy and watershed management plans. The program is funded through grants from the EPA and the Arkansas Natural Resources Division, with the goal of increasing public literacy and voluntary participation regarding watershed management.  

“It’s taking place now,” he said. “One part of the project is focused on the general public, and one part of it is tailored to farmers, crop advisers and natural resource management personnel. The idea is to increase the state’s capacity for voluntary watershed management and water quality improvements.”

The program is currently being featured at crop production and beef cattle conference meetings around the state. Mike Daniels, professor of crop, soil and environmental science for the Division of Agriculture, leads the division’s Discovery Farm Program, which studies the impact of nutrient reduction strategies on field runoff. He is also currently conducting farmer watershed leadership training.

The documented successes of various restoration projects include reduction of sediment in the west fork of the White River, reduction of turbidity in the upper Illinois River, reducing agricultural runoff into the Cache River in northeast Arkansas and more.

Individuals who wish to participate in the Arkansas Watershed Steward program can visit the program’s website and sign up for either online or in-person training.

“There are participants of the Arkansas Watershed Steward program from all over the state, and they working on conservation improvements on their properties, as well as in their communities, along with extension and our partners,” Pennington said.

To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit Follow us on X and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on X at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on X at @AgInArk.


About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact:
Ryan McGeeney