Oklahoma has restored nearly 100 unhealthy streams thanks to water monitoring, regenerative ag
Oklahoma has managed to restore nearly 100 unhealthy streams — more than any other state. Oklahoma officials say credit is due to individual farmers and the conservation programs that support them.
It only took a few minutes for Wes Shockley and his colleague to pull a dozen species of fish (and one small turtle) out of Pryor Creek. Shockley has been a Water Quality Monitoring Expert with the Conservation Commission for three decades, and he says those critters are signs of a healthy stream.
“What lives here tells the story better than anything else,” Shockley said. “We can come out here and collect water samples — and we do. But that's a point in time that doesn't tell as big a story.”
Pryor Creek’s story took a dark turn in 2002, when it was so contaminated with bacteria from agricultural runoff that it landed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waterways. The lakes and streams on that list don’t meet Clean Water Act standards that require waterways to be fishable and swimmable.
But Pryor Creek has recovered enough to come off the list. So have 96 other Oklahoma streams that were previously impaired.
“That is the most in the country,” said Earthea Nance, the EPA Regional Director for Oklahoma and four other states. “So at some level, Oklahoma's got the data to show they're one of the best in the country.”
Nance came to visit Pryor Creek and learn about EPA-funded water monitoring and conservation programs in Oklahoma at the beginning of June.
“I'm proud to be a part of that, even if it's at the federal level,” Nance said. “But really what's happening at the local level with the state and the local farmers and the partners here is one of the most exciting things I've seen.”
Shanon Phillips is the Water Quality Director at the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. She said much of this progress is thanks to local producers adopting regenerative farming techniques.
“They probably didn't have any idea that the creek was impaired with bacteria,” Phillips said. “They were addressing a local issue that they saw on their farms and collectively, we see measurable results.”
One of those farmers is T.J. Love. He’s been around farming his whole life.
“My parents had cattle, my cousins have cattle, uncles,” Love said. “It's kind of like a family thing.”
Love has been preparing his Wagoner County land for cows, and he’s using conservation practices to promote water and soil health.
He’s part of the C.A.R.E. Program. Created in 2017 by the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project and the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, the program uses federal funds to promote diversity and conservation among Oklahoma farmers.
“It can be discouraging to minority farmers if you want to go try to get land or loan for operating loans, things of that nature,” said Love. “You have to be persistent and we have to have people in our corner that's mentoring and pushing us to continue that. So that's what I want to be in Wagoner County here.”
Trey Lam is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, and he’s also a farmer himself. He says the paperwork for farm loans and cost-share programs is overwhelming no matter what. But for producers without access to generational wealth or what Lam calls the “little club” of insider knowledge, navigating government programs is even more difficult.
“Part of it is structural,” Lam said. “Part of it in the past has been discrimination, and we’re really trying to overcome those. We’ve really seen some great success here in Oklahoma.”
The C.A.R.E. Program provides cost sharing and guidance to minority farmers. Wagoner County Conservation District Director Rhonda Bowman says she’s worked with Black, Indigenous, Asian-American and veteran producers through the C.A.R.E. program.
“It's really making other counties want to know, like, what is the program and how can we get in it?” Bowman said.
Bowman works with Love and other farmers in the C.A.R.E. program to develop conservation plans and share the cost of implementing them.
Greg Kloxin, who heads up the Conservation Commission’s Soil Health program, said these non-regulatory, individualized solutions make a big difference for Oklahoma’s soil and streams.
“This very much is in the wheelhouse of the Clean Water Act in terms of working with producers and folks to try to do things that will help to minimize some of the some of what we’re seeing here,” Kloxin said. “I have to tell you, though, the battle is with legacy land management.”
On Love’s land, that means keeping cows away from a creek and nurturing native grasses to prevent erosion. Love has teamed up with the Conservation District to dig farm ponds, build fences for rotational grazing and do prescribed burns for grass health.
Now, his pasture is covered in diverse wildflowers and tall grasses. The steep-banked creek meanders through a corridor of trees and lush brush.
“We have deep-rooted plants here, native plants, allowing that water to percolate down,” Lam said. “So there's not so much runoff, so there's not so much flooding. And it's not carrying up chemicals, sediment into the streams below.”
Love believes his success in restoring his pasture is reflected in the larger success of the C.A.R.E. Program.
“We went to other states, and we talked about our C.A.R.E. Program,” Love said. “And it definitely seems like Oklahoma is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else when it comes to the diversity utilizing the program and how we utilize it.”
Kloxin says these efforts from Love and other farmers like him will trickle downstream.
“We need 25 other [Loves] all along the course of this stream, all the way down to where it dumps into its main stem, in order to secure and help to promote a recovery for this system and a stabilization,” Kloxin said.
Kloxin said it will take many human lifetimes to recover from erosion and runoff that are part of Oklahoma’s agricultural legacy. But the C.A.R.E. program and farmers like Love hope to keep regenerating the landscape one pasture at a time. And that will lead to cleaner streams flowing through the state.
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