• FOX23 Investigates: Safety of the Arkansas River water

    By: Janna Clark


    TULSA, Okla. - Quick Facts:

    • The city says the Arkansas River will be used for recreation one day
    • But is the water safe?
    • FOX23’s Janna Clark is taking a closer look at what’s in the water
    • WATCH her full report above


    A FOX23 investigation uncovered a surprise for the city of Tulsa about the cleanliness of the Arkansas River.

    City leaders promised that the river could be used for recreation and said it's safe to get into the water.

    FOX23’s Janna Clark looked through records and found that the most recent test results are more than 5 years old a fact of which the mayor was not aware.

    Environmentalist Barbara Van Hanken of the Sierra Club wants to see research about the quality of the water.

    “There is a problem. People have a right to know that,” Van Hanken said.

    Mayor G.T. Bynum wants to use the river for recreation in a few years, mentioning the plan in a January speech.

    “Do you feel like it’s safe to get in?” Clark asked,

    “Absolutely,” Bynum said.

    The city says it looks to INCOG as the authority on water quality. FOX23 asked INCOG's Vernon Seaman about it.

    “Is the water safe?” Clark asked.

    “Safe is a difficult term,” Seaman said. “In all surface water, there is risk.”

    “Is it OK for people to get in the water?” Clark asked.

    “I get in it frequently. I kayak a lot,” Seaman said.

    FOX23 asked about pollutants in the river and where that data is coming from,

    “(The) Water Resources Board collects a lot of data. Oklahoma Conservation Commission collects data,” Seaman said.

    Clark called both agencies. They said they have not been testing. The Water Resources Board last tested five years ago in Bixby and Sand Springs, but not in Tulsa.

    “I haven't found anyone doing testing in city limits,” Clark said.

    “That's true,” Seaman said.

    But the mayor didn't know that.

    “Do you think there's enough data?” Clark asked.

    “Yes, everything we saw and heard from INCOG gives us great confidence in the info they collect, where they collect and the frequency (with which) they collect it,” Bynum said.

    Bynum asked INCOG during a River Task Force meeting in September 2015 about water testing.

    “In Tulsa, on the Arkansas, it is routinely tested?” Bynum asked.

    “There are portions of it in the city limits that are routinely tested,” Seaman said.

    FOX23 found that no one has been testing the Arkansas River.

    “That's just not true unless INCOG (has) been lying to us. They've been doing it for years,” Bynum said.

    FOX23 requested and went through stacks of INCOG records that show show that the last time INCOG tested the river was 2011.

    FOX23 showed those records to Bynum to see if that’s what he expected.

    “Everything they've told us is that it's tested with regularity,” Bynum said.

    Both the Water Resources Board and Conservation Commission told FOX23 via phone that there is “no way to know if the river quality's good or bad if you don't have any data.”

    “We can always use more data,” Seaman said.

    When Clark tried to talk to the mayor again, she got a note that he wasn’t available for an interview this week.

    FOX23 spoke to INCOG for an hour and 20 minutes.

    "Maybe there needs to be better communication,” Seaman said.

    As for the 2015 task force meeting when Seaman said testing being done, “at that time it was my understanding agencies were still collecting data,” he said.

    “We need proof or something we can look at. That needs to change way before we tell people to go take a swim in our river,” Van Hanken said.

    After FOX23 started to ask questions, the city did start testing the river last fall. But the city said that to get an accurate read, it will have to collect samples for a full year.

    Department of Environmental Quality reports show that three segments of the Arkansas River have too much bacteria. But DEQ said that is based on old information.

    INCOG said it would like to have new data, but said the river is cleaner than it used to be. That is based on better regulations for wastewater treatment facilities that release water in the river.

    The City of Tulsa emailed this to FOX23:

    "In August of 2015, INCOG requested a beneficial use change for the Arkansas River from secondary body contact recreation to primary body contact recreation, here’s how those are defined:

    Primary body contact recreation (a) primary body contact recreation involves direct body contact with the water where a possibility of ingestion exists.

    Secondary body contact recreation (b) the secondary body contact recreation beneficial use is designated where ingestion of water is not anticipated.

    After nearly two years of review, public comment, and consultation, the EPA approved that re-designation on Feb. 27.

    FOX23 checked with the water resources board. It said the change from secondary to primary use is simply based on the “use” of the body of water and does not mean that the quality of the water has changed.


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