Water Quality

A snorkeler at Ponca
A visitor wearing blue swim trunks and yellow fins swims beneath blue waters along a stone bluffline.

Zach Rowe

Buffalo National River preserves 135 miles of free-flowing river, providing recreational opportunities like paddling, fishing, and snorkeling and also supporting an array of life—from the mussels that filter the water to the elk that drink it. Life in the Ozarks is dependent on the health of aquatic systems like the Buffalo River. Long-term water quality monitoring efforts by Buffalo National River's aquatics team help to protect the health and safety of the park’s waters.

There are 32 water quality sampling sites within the park where dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, temperature, bacteria (fecal coliform and E. coli), and nutrient measurements are collected and analyzed. Of the 32 sites sampled, 20 are on tributaries (streams or creeks flowing into Buffalo River), 3 are on springs, and 9 are on the river itself. Sampling many sites throughout the park, including outside of the main river, can help identify potential locations and sources that could be affecting water quality.

At Buffalo National River’s water lab, turbidity and bacteria—E. coli—are primary focal points of study. E. coli is commonly used as an indicator of fecal contamination of freshwater because more than 90% of bacteria found in warm blooded animals’ excrement is E. coli. Most strains of E.coli are harmless, but a few can have ecological and human health impacts. Turbidity analysis reflects the clarity or cloudiness of the water and can inform how land-use change and erosion (natural or human-influenced) are affecting water quality. For example, when the river turns chocolatey brown, the turbidity is high due to increased particles in the water. By detecting which waterways have a higher level of turbidity and bacteria, Buffalo National River can effectively determine risk to the natural resources and public and develop future projects focusing on monitoring areas of concern.
This long-term monitoring is used to better understand water quality trends and advise Buffalo National River's resource management strategies. Using this knowledge, Buffalo National River can further investigate why changes might be occurring and determine how to allocate resources to best protect the park and its visitors. To ensure that visitors each year have an enjoyable experience recreating on the river, Buffalo National River also relies on visitors being active stewards. By practicing Leave No Trace and recreating responsibly, we can preserve our waters for future generations.
Algae in the river
Algae in the Lower Wilderness

NPS Photo

Algal Blooms

Blue-green algae occur naturally in many lakes and rivers and have been found in many parts of the country, including the Ozarks region. Algae are more abundant in summer and may appear as green or yellow streaks or scum on the surface of the water or as green globs floating below the surface.

Nice sunny days, warm water, and increased nutrients are the perfect recipe for algae to grow. Low rainfall increases the opportunity for algae to bloom, and increased lawn and agricultural runoff into waters can create ideal conditions for algae blooms. Some algae growth is important to a healthy ecosystem. Most species of algae are not dangerous.

However, some species of algae are toxic to humans, animals, and the environment. Harmful algae and the water around it can cause allergic reactions and illness in people and pets. Symptoms include eye and skin irritation, coughing, sneezing, itchy throat, watery eyes, rashes, abdominal pain, cramps and diarrhea. If you have a pre-existing condition, such as asthma, these symptoms may be more severe. Contact your doctor or veterinarian if you or your pet have any symptoms or sudden illness.


Algal Blooms and Health Concerns

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that some species of algae are toxic to humans, animals, and the environment. Exposure to cyanotoxins or cyanobacteria from harmful algae can result in serious health problems. Areas with visible algae concentrations should be avoided for primary contact such as swimming. Avoid ingesting the water around these blooms, being especially careful if children are in your group. Dogs are also very susceptible to algae toxins. For more information, go to the CDC’s website at https://www.cdc.gov/habs/general.html.

Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has created an app to report nuisance and harmful algae blooms. A person may also submit the form online:

● Nuisance Algae Bloom Complaint Form:

● Harmful Algae Bloom Complaint Form:

The National Park Service (NPS) and US Public Health Service encourage visitors who believe they or their animals have become ill after exposure to algae in the Buffalo River, to report the illness during business hours to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) Communicable Disease Nurse at 501-537-8969. After hours, people can call the ADH Emergency Communication Center at 1-800-651-3493. Visitors can also report illnesses to the NPS Epidemiology Branch Chief for the Office of Public Health, at e-mail us.

Tips for Staying Safe

  • Never drink untreated water
  • Keep children out of areas with thick algae
  • Keep your pets from drinking water or swimming in water with algae present
  • Don't let your pets eat dead fish found in algae

Water Quality Articles

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    Last updated: July 30, 2021

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