Scientists say the alluvial aquifer beneath Arkansas' Grand Prairie — one of the country's prime rice-growing regions — has been pumped to the brink of collapse. If groundwater pumping rates in the area haven't changed by 2015, the aquifer will be exhausted.

First introduced years ago, the $300 million-plus White River Irrigation District demonstration project is an attempt to use more surface water as an alternative to sinking more and deeper wells into the aquifer. If built, irrigation water will be pumped from the White River and sent through a series of pipes and canals to about 900 farmers.

The Army Corps of Engineers-backed project hasn't engendered an entirely positive response. Opponents of the project (a broad coalition of environmentalists led by the Arkansas Wildlife Federation (AWF), sportsmen and landowners situated along the White River) contend the pumping plan threatens the nearby White River refuge — a huge area of unspoiled, old-growth timber. While many opponents agree Grand Prairie farmers need help, they oppose diverting White River water.

The AWF filed two lawsuits — one state, one federal — to stop the project. Last August, the group lost the federal suit which claimed not enough research had been done on the project's environmental impact. An appeal of that ruling was denied in late March.

The appeal ruling will “take care of a lot of (environmental lawsuit threats),” said Tom Fortner, WRID deputy director. “It gets harder and harder to file suit. If they try (an injunction) to stop construction now, they might have to put up bonds… The (Corps of Engineers) said if they stop now the AWF needs to put up a $1.7 million bond. That's what it would cost to stop the project at this stage.”

According to Fortner, the state lawsuit casts doubt on the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission's authority to set flow rates in the White River.

Now, after years of legal wrangling it appears ground will soon be broken on a large $35 million pumping station near DeVall's Bluff, Ark.

“In September, the Corps advertised for the $35 million White River pumping plant contract. Granite Construction from Watsonville, Calif., got the contract. They're one of the biggest civil contractors in the nation — they do work all over the country. The station is supposed to be completed in three years.”

The pumping station is in the flood plain. Fortner said as soon as water recedes, work on the station should begin. “Now, we're just waiting on the weather.”

Even with legal worries having hampered the project's major building plans, smaller scale work has continued. “With the on-farm projects, so far we've done 229 contracts with a total value of $37 million,” said Fortner. “Basically, that money was used to build reservoirs and things like that… We've done about a third of the on-farm work.”

Funding for the project is expected to break down like this: the state will pay 10 percent, WRID will pay 25 percent, federal coffers will cover the remaining 65 percent. In his latest budget proposal, President Bush allocated no funds for the project.

“Funding is always an issue, no matter what,” said Fortner. “Historically, if you can get a project started, Congress provides money on a year-to-year basis. They don't fund it for 10 years — it's only year-to-year. Now, I'm not saying it won't be hard to get that funding, it will be. But we believe we'll get the funding.”

Next year, contracts for an electrical substation and several miles of 10-inch pipe from the pumping station to canals will be awarded. In 2007, contractors are expected to begin installing canals, more pipelines and small pumps. At the same time, more on-farm work will be done.

While the project is again moving forward, there are some changes in how WRID customers will be paying for delivered water.

“Originally, we planned to make use of streams as part of a delivery system. Now, delivery will be made through canals and pipelines. Farmers didn't want to worry whether water in the streams was district water or free. So we decided to just get out. Now, any water in the stream is the farmers'.”

Another change is the WRID originally planned to set up a “project improvement area” that would allow a tax of $1 to $3 per irrigated acre. Farmers complained from the beginning about this annual tax, said Fortner.

“It would have brought in a very small percentage of our income. Since it was causing a problem, we changed our approach. There will be no taxable improvement area. The district now has no power to tax… all our income will be from water sales.”

Once that decision was made, the WRID “had to charge a membership fee until the farmers get water. We need up-front money, so we're charging $2 per irrigated acre… We're asking farmers to sign 10-year contracts.”

The money paid by farmers now, said Fortner, will be credited toward future water purchases.

The price of delivered water has been set at $26 per acre foot for 10 years. The contract begins only when WRID members actually receive water.

“If it takes seven years from now to reach those on the lower end of the project, they're still set for 10 years after that. If you look at diesel prices, I suspect many are paying more than that per acre foot to pump wells.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com