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[Archived] Northwest Arkansas' water gold mine

| Environment | January 12, 2013

"The biggest problem in the next 50 years is keeping the lake clean," said Richard Starr, recently retired chief executive officer of the Beaver Water District..."The Morning News" 

Beaver Lake Provides Water To Five Counties
Authorities Say There Is Enough Water For Generations To Come
By Bob Caudle
The Morning News


SPRINGDALE -- The availability of abundant water contributes to the economic and population boom in Northwest Arkansas.

Beaver Lake, the major source of potable water for the area, shows no signs of withering, despite the area's rapidly growing population and increased water demand, said Alan Fortenberry, chief executive director of the Beaver Water District.

"But, sometime in the future, probably after we're all gone, there may be a need to reallocate the resources of the lake," Fortenberry said. "They (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) may need less for power and more for water supply."

The lake is like a bucket, Fortenberry said. The water storage is allocated for different uses. "You don't pay the Corps of Engineers for water, you buy storage."

Beaver Lake provides drinking water to more than 300,000 people in Benton, Washington, Carroll, Boone and Madison counties. The lake, impounded in the early 1960s, is also a popular recreation destination, and the dam is used to generate electricity.

The Beaver Water District -- which serves Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville -- is the largest consumer of water. The district has the capacity to draw 80 million gallons from the lake to provide water to more than 200,000 in Washington and Benton counties.

Flood control and power generation are the top priorities of the corps, ahead of recreational or drinking water.

"By 2024, we're projecting 600,000 people just in the two-county (Benton and Washington) area," said Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission.

"You have to factor in the other areas the lake serves, plus the rural areas. When these rural water systems come online, you're going to see all kinds of rural development. Things are really going to pop," Hawkins said.

"The drinking water allocations in the lake right now are 98-99 percent spoken for," said Jim Sandberg, employed by the corps at Beaver Lake.

Approval to increase the number of acre feet designated for drinking water must come from the U.S. Congress. The Corps of Engineers has minimal discretionary authority to raise the allocation for water supply by 50,000 acre feet, which the corps did recently.

An acre-foot, 325,851 gallons, is the amount of water required to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot.

When the lake was impounded, 139,153 acre feet, 11.3 percent was allocated for water supply. The water supply allocation increased recently to 189,153 acre feet, up nearly 5 percent to 15.9 percent.

The lake has a total of 1.2 million acre feet of storage, according to Trish Anslow of the Corps of Engineers in Little Rock.

The corps looks first at balancing flood control with power generation. Water supply is third on the list. Corps official are looking at using more of the lake for water supply, Anslow added.

Beaver Lake supplies more drinking water than the rest of the lakes in the Little Rock District combined, Sandberg said, but most of the water in Beaver Lake is used to produce electricity.

Allocation isn't the only issue Beaver Lake managers must address. The potential for pollution is a growing concern.

"The biggest problem in the next 50 years is keeping the lake clean," said Richard Starr, recently retired chief executive officer of the Beaver Water District.

The lake is the only source of water for Northwest Arkansas, he said. "There is no other alternative."

The main, middle and west forks of the White River, War Eagle Creek, Brush Creek and Richland Creek are the major tributaries of Beaver Lake. The Beaver Lake watershed is composed of 1,186 square miles of drainage above the dam.

Population growth in the watershed means more contaminants in the runoff area and eventually in the lake.

Population density in the watershed particularly concerns Hawkins.

"We've had continued discussion on how to control runoff," Hawkins said. "We've got the stormwater issues from construction sites and all the septic tanks in close proximity to the lake."

Other parts of the state have already experienced too much development too quickly, Hawkins added.

"If they don't get a handle on the sanitary sewer development, the area will turn out like Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine near Hot Springs," he said.

Septic tanks worked fine around the lakes for several years, Hawkins continued, but eventually the ground became saturated and allowed septic tank water to leach into the lakes. The situation forced a building moratorium until an improvement district was formed to build sewer systems.

The advent of the septic tank effluent pumping, or STEP, systems pose additional runoff control problems in the Beaver Lake watershed. Washington County officials are considering a deal to manage STEP systems and some property owners' associations are managing STEP systems, Hawkins added.

"We really need to have a round table (discussion) to try and get a grip on handling the STEP systems," he said.

Each home served by a STEP system has a tank, a sewage effluent pump, and a control panel. The wastewater generated at home by flushing toilets, washing laundry and showering flows into the tank.

Water and lighter materials are pumped to a larger secondary tank connected to other individual septic tanks. The solid waste remains in the homeowner's tank where it naturally decomposes and is eventually pumped out like a regular septic tank.

The area needs to come up with an overall plan to handle alternatives to sanitary sewer systems, Hawkins said.

The lake's ability to provide clean water remains viable, but the Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project up stream from the lake could pose problems in the future.

A water management project, Grand Prairie is designed to protect and preserve the Alluvial and Sparta Aquifers in the east-central portion of the state, situated between the White and Arkansas rivers.

The project, which began in 2000 is expected to take a decade to complete, uses rain and excess water from the White River to supplement a network of on-farm water recovery systems. The supplemental system is used to fill farm reservoirs.

New reservoirs are being built on approximately 8,800 acres of farmland within the Grand Prairie area.

The project is funded by the federal government, local taxes, the sale of water, the state and donations.

"I don't believe it will have an economic impact on Northwest Arkansas at all because the water won't be pumped out of the river when the river is low," said Bob Anderson, public affairs officer for the Memphis division of the corps.

Water will only be pumped when the water is high or a regular flow, according to Anderson, which will help reduce the depletion of the aquifer.

Corps officials say that project will never affect water levels in Northwest Arkansas.

Local residents are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Sallyann Brown, a Rogers woman who teaches flyfishing and flytying, is making the rounds speaking to civic groups about what some see as an impending danger to Beaver Lake.

"Because I live in Northwest Arkansas, I don't want to see the lake go back to a river," Brown explained.

The Grand Prairie project pumps, if installed, will be capable of pumping 1,604 gallons per second, Brown said. It could pump 100 billion gallons from the White river a year, she added.

The Arkansas Wildlife Federation, a private organization, filed a federal lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers, the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission and the Grand Prairie Project District, seeking to halt the project, Brown said

The Wildlife Federation also filed a civil suit in Pulaski County court.

The federal court ruled against the federation and an appeal hearing is set for May. The civil case is also set for May.

The Wildlife Federation was successful in obtaining injunctions in federal and state courts halting construction until the lawsuits are settled.