LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday asked the heads of five state agencies to review water quality issues within the watershed of the Buffalo National River and make sure Arkansas has a means to preserve and protect a free-flowing stream that attracts more than a million nature lovers annually.
While the U.S. Department of Interior governs the actual waterway, Hutchinson’s “Beautiful Buffalo River Action Committee” will address activity beyond the National Park Service boundaries, including a major hog-feeding operation near Mount Judea.
“This is not a regulatory body,” Hutchinson said while tapping agency directors covering agriculture, environmental quality, health, natural resources and tourism. Rather, he said, the panel would suggest improvements and voluntary action by governments and individuals within the watershed, which stretches more than 130 miles across northern Arkansas.
The Buffalo was named the country’s first national river in 1972 and remains one of the few undammed rivers in the U.S. The river has drawn more than 1 million visitors in each year since 2006, according to National Park Service data. The figure is comparable to the number of visitors to Hot Springs National Park in central Arkansas. The Badlands National Park draws around 1 million, while Yellowstone and Yosemite each attract about 4 million annually.
The National Park Service said it looked forward to working with the task force.
“Protecting the water quality is vitally important to maintaining the health of this important river,” spokeswoman Christine Powell said.
The governor said he wants the panel to use a science-based approach to improve or maintain water quality, and include data from a recent study looking at the impact of a hog-feeding operation near the river.
The state Department of Environmental Quality recently collected soil from beneath lined manure ponds to gauge whether waste from the 2,500 sows and 4,000 piglets is leaking into porous ground. A final report is expected by the end of the year, said Becky Keogh, the agency’s director.
Keogh said it was appropriate for Arkansas to take the lead on areas outside Park Service boundaries but still within the watershed.
“We are on the road to an Arkansas-led solution to proactive engagement rather than sitting back to passively await the development of an inflexible federal regulatory mechanism that would produce uncertain, potentially, and often indefinite outcomes,” she said, reading from prepared remarks.
Hutchinson said he wants the committee’s first report by Jan. 31, 2018.