Agricultural producers upstream from the Oklahoma River are working to improve the North Canadian watershed, even as local and state health and agricultural officials continue to monitor the river that made about four dozen triathletes sick after swimming in it in May 2009.
The Oklahoma River is the renamed seven-mile portion of the North Canadian River as it moves through Oklahoma City.
Farmers and ranchers have converted more than 20,000 acres of cropland to no-till practices and riparian buffers along the North Canadian River in a cost-share project. Funding for the conservation project totaled more than $2.5 million and comes from different state and national sources, including the state's 319 Nonpoint Source Program, which is part of the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Resources Conservation Service.
"The producer has to contribute," said Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. Cost sharing can range from a 50-50 split to a 90-10 split. The watershed project has resulted in eight miles of protected stream banks in Canadian, Blaine and Dewey counties in Central and Northwestern Oklahoma.
Watonga farmer Steve House said the reason many farmers got involved with improving the watershed is partly because Oklahoma farmers and ranchers are very aware of the old Dust Bowl stories from the 1930s and are more receptive to crop land conservation.
"Maybe this is our part that we can help the situation," House said, who serves as a conservation district director in his area.
"(Agricultural producers) recognized that there are things you can do better," Pope said. "They took the bull by the horns early."
The program was launched years before the Oklahoma River illness incident occurred. The producers asked to start the project in 2004, but there were not funds to help with the conversions until 2007, Pope said.
House personally has converted more than 240 acres to no-till crop production that qualified for the project, plus another 80 acres southeast of Watonga that did not. He said the last time there was a significant drought, issues with the watershed killed cattle that drank algae-filled water. The algae resulted from having too many chemicals from crop production runoff.
"Very deadly," House said of the runoff.
Costs to the crop producers include replacing the crops in the area and the lag time in getting new ones established in the no-till areas. Fences have been erected around some of the riparian buffers, which are the natural trees and shrubbery that grow up along the river or stream banks and act as a natural filter. Cattle must also be kept out of the riparian buffer areas, and herd reduction is another cost to the producers.
"We keep the traffic out of them," House said. "The idea is that we'll keep them out in the future."
But despite the cost to the producer, there is no shortage of volunteers.
"We've never had a project when we ran out of landowners who wanted to participate before we ran out of money," Pope said.
The watershed improvement program is already having an effect.
"Just offhand, I can see within a year, the improvement in the area," House said, noting that the water in some areas is already clearer and cleaner.
However, other sources of contamination in the watershed still need to be addressed.
"There are many possible sources of bacteria and nutrients that can be contaminants: storm water runoff from municipal systems, old septic tank systems and wildlife, as well as many others," said Terry Peach, state Secretary of Agriculture, in a prepared statement. "It is critical we all work together to preserve the greatest resource of all, water. Agriculture is being proactive in protecting our resources, and we would hope everyone who works and lives in this watershed will also take steps to promote clean water."
There are other 319 Nonpoint Source Program projects around the state, with several in the Illinois River watershed area.
"It's had an impact on me," House said. "It's had an impact on my neighbors and friends."