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[Archived] Water battle spans state

| Oklahoma Scenic Rivers | January 10, 2017

By Michael Rowe Staff Writer

Posted on Sunday, May 8, 2005
ROGERS — For years people believed the ivory-billed woodpecker was extinct, now the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project might be on the endangered species list.
The irrigation project has unique connections to both the woodpecker and northwest Arkansas’s primary source of water — Beaver Lake.
Many people don’t think about the importance of water to northwest Arkansas.
It’s not an issue that holds people’s attention, but water availability is one of the key factors driving growth in the area. New subdivisions, commercial businesses and other developments depend on access to water.
Except for well users, everyone in northwest Arkansas gets water from the same source — Beaver Lake. The lake is northwest Arkansas’s most important natural resource. In addition the steady flow of water to cities and rural water authorities, it is the area’s optimum location for recreational boating and fishing.
It’s easy to understand why groups like the Beaver Water District and the Association for Beaver Lake Environment feel protective of the lake, and it’s easy to understand why these groups are worried about an irrigation project on the White River in east central Arkansas. Grand Prairie Irrigation Project
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission want to build a facility on the lower White River near Devalls Bluff to pump enough water to irrigate rice fields in the Grand Prairie area.
Arkansas is the leading producer of rice in the United States. If Arkansas were a country it would be the fourth largest producer of rice in the world. The state is home to the world’s largest rice processing and exporting company, Riceland Foods.
For years, rice farmers have used groundwater from the aquifer to irrigate fields. Aquifers are layers of sand in underground vaults that store water, which has seeped underground from the surface. It provides the primary source of water for some parts of the state. The level of water taken from the aquifer for irrigation and other purposes has outpaced the natural replenishment of groundwater. The ASWCC sees the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project as a way to regulate groundwater use.
The $319 million project when completed will allow 1,640 cubic feet (12,300 gallons) of water a second or 100 billion gallons of water a year to be pumped.
It will supply fewer than 900 farms in the Grand Prairie area, providing water to about 90,000 acres of rice patties. This may sound like a lot of acres, but it’s only 6 percent of the total farm acreage in the state used for rice production.
The Corps of Engineers and the ASWCC plan to begin construction of the pumping station this year. The entire project will take 10 years to complete, but some pumping will be able to begin about three years after the start of the project. What’s the problem?
The White River begins in the Boston Mountain area of the Ozarks and flows all the way to the Mississippi River. It provides water for Beaver Lake, Table Rock Lake and Bull Shoals Lake. The Corps of Engineers controls dams on all of the lakes, and at Norfolk Lake, which is not on the White River but drains into it. In a drought the Corps of Engineers may lower lake levels to bolster the flow of the White River, providing enough water for the irrigation project.
The Corps of Engineers maintains that lake levels won’t be significantly reduced for the irrigation project, but other water and environmental experts don’t put much stock in this. Beaver Water District’s chief operating officer Larry Lloyd has said the irrigation project could really become an issue for the lake if there was a prolonged drought in the state.
If the project is built and there is a drought the outcry from rice farmers could be enough to pressure the Corps of Engineers into lowering lake levels, Lloyd says.
Lower lake levels will make the water dirtier, which in turn will make it more costly to treat. These costs will then be passed down to water customers. People who use the lake for recreation — water skiers, fishermen, sail boaters — will also have to deal with the decline in water quality. Lower levels also have the potential of playing havoc with lake resident’s docks.
These problems are the local impact of the irrigation project, but it doesn’t end there. The White River supports a sizable wildlife habitat of hardwood forests. The little bird that could
The planned pump station for the irrigation project is located only 20 miles from the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge were the ivory-billed woodpecker was rediscovered. Critics of the project say pumping water from the river could lower its level. No one is sure how that will effect the woodpecker’s habitat. But the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and other groups believe the project threatens the hardwood forests where the bird was recently spotted.
On April 29 the attorney for the AWF sent a letter to the Memphis District of the Army Corps of Engineers asking them to halt work on the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project until the impact on the newly discovered ivory-billed woodpecker are known. In the past, the presence of endangered species has been enough to shut down projects, such as logging in areas of the Pacific Northwest that are habitats of the spotted owl.
Corps of Engineers officials have said publically the woodpecker won’t stop the project, but they are willing to accommodate the endangered species.
The Grand Prairie Irrigation Project may not be the only one either. If Grand Prairie is successful there is the potential for four similar facilities to be built on the White River. Other ways to stop the project
The AWF has teamed up with landowners and farmers in the lower stretches of the White River to oppose the irrigation project. The project is also opposed by national conservation groups.
A variety of legal maneuvers have been attempted to stop the project from proceeding. A decision in a federal lawsuit is being appealed. If successful this could lead to an injunction stopping the project. Another lawsuit filed in 2004 by the AWF and other parties is still ongoing. That case claims that the Soil and Water Conservation Commission is in violation of Amendment 35, a referendum that gave sole authority to govern the withdrawal of large amounts of water from rivers and streams.
Another way to stop the project is for rice farmers to work on solving their water problems without the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project. There are no guarantees that farmers will use water from the project. Buying water from the irrigation project will likely be more expensive than pumping groundwater. Although legislation was proposed this year that would limit farmers use of groundwater. The legislation has not been approved yet, but it is seen as crucial by the ASWCC.
The AWF hopes farmers will explore alternatives that could negate the need for the massive irrigation project. AWF has been working to provide an alternative to using the White River for irrigation. The group has met with farmers to discuss water conservation strategies such as new reservoirs that could reduce use of groundwater and provide a replacement for the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project. Some farmers have even been able to get economic assistance for implementing conservation methods.
Money is another factor that could sink the project. President Bush’s budget for this year does not contain funding for the Grand Prairie project. However, this does not preclude funding allocations being put in the federal budget by a member of Arkansas’s congressional delegation. About $80 million has already been spent on the project for design and engineering. Like many such projects, the cost will be split between the federal and state government, with 65 percent being paid by the federal government.
This year the soil and water commission plans to issue $21 million in bonds to pay part of the state’s share of the project and get started on building the $35 million pumping station. The ASWCC is banking on the ability to sell water to farmers in order to pay back the bonds. In an Arkansas Senate committee, Sen. David Bisbee, R Rogers, joked that if the project doesn’t come online the pumping station would make a great water slide. Bisbee and others expressed concerns that the federal government wouldn’t come up with their share of the project.
One way that northwest Arkansas residents can have a say in the issue is by making their opinions on the project known to their elected representatives and others.
Monday night ABLE (the Association for Beaver Lake Environment) will hold a town hall meeting at Shewmaker Center that will feature two people on opposite sides of the issue, Corps of Engineers project manager Jim Bodron and AWF president David Carruth. The meeting will provide a good opportunity for local residents to learn more about the project and voice their concerns, said James Gately, a member of ABLE who helped to organize the meeting.