Saga of Grand Prairie project rolls on Project would pump water through canals to on-farm storage

While the project has major support from 50 percent of area farmers, the other half are vehemently opposed…. Loud, nasty arguments have occurred over the last few years.

The Grand Prairie region of Arkansas is one of the greatest rice-producing areas of the world. But the tap is running dry. Without major intervention of some sort, scientists say, the alluvial aquifer beneath the Grand Prairie will collapse by 2015.

With wells being sunk ever deeper and some farmers in dire need of additional irrigation water, the Army Corps of Engineers, NRCS, and other state agencies have thrown their collective weight behind the $319 million Grand Prairie demonstration irrigation project. The project calls for tapping the nearby White River and annually pumping 115 billion gallons of surface water through a series of canals and waterways to farmers' on-farm storage structures. From there the water would be pumped to row-cropped fields.

Sounds like a fantastic, easy idea, right? Wrong. While the project has major support from some 50 percent of area farmers, the other half are vehemently opposed. Add municipalities, environmentalists, hunters, and fishermen to the opposition, and it's clear why so many loud, nasty arguments have occurred over the last few years.

Opponents point out that the White River refuge, a vast swath of old timber, needs the White River to flood in order to remain healthy. Dropping river levels by pumping would threaten the refuge (which sits adjacent to the Grand Prairie) and also area towns and residents that need a healthy refuge to survive economically.

The compromise

Last April, the storm over the irrigation project calmed. Spurred by a compromise proposed by then-Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., leading parties on both sides of the hot debate agreed to allow the on-farm water storage portions of the project to be built. A promise was also given that water wouldn't be pumped from the White River until a comprehensive engineering review of the Corp's plan be completed. In a bid to improve the discourse, the parties also began meeting regularly. Since then, Dickey was defeated in a re-election bid, and — as predicted by many outside observers — the truce is again on extremely shaky ground if not ended entirely.

Last summer, executive director of the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission Randy Young said, “Following the meetings that Congressman Dickey called, one of the things we talked about was the need for everyone with an interest to be at the table. I recommended to (Arkansas) Lt. Gov. Rockefeller — who chairs the Water Resources Task Force — that he appoint a 12-member committee that would be representative of the interests in the (irrigation) project. He agreed and I was asked to chair the new oversight committee and make the appointments.”

Among the appointees was Jerry Lee Bogard, a farmer and vociferous opponent of the project. Along with attorney David Carruth and several others, Bogard made up the “side of the committee that took a dimmer view of the project,” says Bogard.

The project naysayers claim that part of the Dickey compromise was to look at alternative sources of supplemental water for the Grand Prairie other than the White River. That wasn't done, they say.

When they came out of the Dickey meeting, was it the nay-sayers' understanding that the agencies involved would go back and gather some new data? “Yes. I thought we'd carve out time where individuals would sit and sift through the data that was being used to make predictions and come up with forecasts and recommendations. None of that happened. Corps folks presented us with their findings and we were asked to accept those as fact,” says Bogard.

Not true, says Jim Bodron, project manager with the Corps. “We worked with the oversight committee to complete a draft report. That committee recommended proceeding with the project. We looked at prior studies and reports. We conducted new aquifer studies and looked at the cost for different methods of bringing water in from the Arkansas River. The committee didn't identify any water sources other than ones that had already been considered. We analyzed the things they wanted us to analyze.”

So new research was indeed done? “The cost estimate to check on bringing water in from the Arkansas River was done in the 1940s. We didn't use that. We recalculated the cost. We looked at the alluvial aquifer — through the USGS — again to make sure there isn't more water there than we thought,” says Bodron.

Other possibilities

Carruth says project opponents wanted other things looked at: tapping the Arkansas River, more reservoirs, aquifer recharge (as is used in Israel) and retiring marginal land.

“We — the Wildlife Management Institute, Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, towns opposed to the project — asked that all the tools in the chest be considered before just grabbing the hammer. We assumed when the Dickey office meeting happened, there would be a comprehensive review of the alternatives to pumping the White River. Some $2 million was appropriated for that,” says Carruth.

In the first summer meeting, “the scoping of the committee was so narrow, I thought 75 percent of what was agreed to in D.C. was eliminated. The scope was just wide enough for the Corps to go back and see if their original analysis was right. If it was, what was the use of looking at the alternatives?

“There was also discussion on aquifer recharge. But shortly thereafter, [Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission] came back saying that was not economically feasible. I never saw any research or data that showed it would cost X-number of dollars to build a recharge well or X-number to pump,” says Carruth.

Again, says Bodron, all issues raised were looked at — including recharging the aquifer. “The state geologist looked at that. In Israel they purify sea water and then inject it into the aquifer. They use the aquifer as storage. A lot of testing was done on that years ago. Here, it just isn't a feasible thing to do,” says Bodron.

In terms of land use, Bodron says in order to protect the aquifer, 73 percent of the land in the area would have be taken out of production. Acreage in the 240,000 farm acres of the Grand Prairie would have to be reduced by 178,000 acres. The remaining 62,000 acres would then be subject to additional conservation and on-farm storage.

At committee meetings Carruth asked to look at WRP going into the Grand Prairie. “After all, if you take $319 million (the estimated cost of the project) for 240,000 acres, you're looking at spending over $1,000 per acre. Why not offer farmers around $800 an acre to retire the land? They can still grow trees on it or hunt it, but they'll be saving water by not growing row-crops.

“I was told farmers wouldn't do it, that not enough acres could be retired to justify it. But there was no study done. That was just an opinion and the issue was dropped.”

How about the CRP or WRP angle? “Most of the acreage in the area isn't wetlands or highly erodible. That won't work,” says Bodron.

What about a program like the one in Georgia where the state essentially buys the rights for irrigation? “Farmers there are still allowed to farm, but dryland. Or how about buying the ground-water pumping rights? The farmer could pump out of a reservoir, but not the ground. I was told it wouldn't work because the farmers don't want to do it. Plus, the Grand Prairie is a rice area and that crop can't be farmed dryland. But what about beans and milo? There's plenty of hill country in the area that rice can't be grown on regardless. They wouldn't even look at it,” says Carruth.

Again, not true, says Bodron. According to Arkansas law, land rights and water rights aren't separable, he says. And any such action would mean protecting the aquifer by limiting water pumping regardless. The area would still have to take 178,000 acres out of production.

“We won't support that. The federal interest is in both maintaining the economy and protecting the aquifer. The only way to do that is through the combination of the on-farm features and import system that have been planned all along,” says Bodron.

What about more reservoirs? “We looked at that. The ability to capture existing runoff would limit new reservoir construction to 1,379 acres. We're now looking at 8,800 acres of reservoirs — but those have to be filled by imported water,” says Bodron.

There have also been concerns raised that the $319 million project could have skyrocketing costs and end up with an even higher price tag.

Does the $319 million hold? “Yes. That figure includes the estimated cost of inflation over the 10-year building of the project. If we wait 10 years to start, though, the price will go up because of inflation. Inflation is a factor. You can't keep delaying a project and expect the price to remain the same,” says Bodron.

Not in vain

Bodron's assurances to the contrary, opponents of the project aren't sold. But all the work wasn't in vain, they say.

“Don't misunderstand. I am upbeat in several areas. We were successful in getting significant money in here to build on-farm water storage. The on-farm features make a tremendous amount of sense and if done in a wide enough scope, would go a long way towards satisfying our conservation needs,” says Bogard.

Bogard also praises Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's continued interest in the region and project. Any further unity between the divergent sides will come from Huckabee's involvement, he says.

“Gov. Huckabee has taken a firm leadership role in this. While I have been critical of the oversight committee, I am the first to applaud the governor for sifting through the rubble to find what's reasonable on this issue. I think that's the brightest spot at the moment. He asks the right, tough questions and demands answers. That's encouraging. As long as he stays involved, I think we'll get this resolved,” says Bogard.

Lawsuits

What about threatened lawsuits? Bogard says he thinks the environmental community is “fixing to come after this project with a vengeance that the proponents haven't even imagined yet. The proponents are in trouble — they have no friends in D.C. When Dickey was defeated, the only Arkansan on the House Appropriations Committee went bye-bye. Where is the money for this project coming from now? Frankly, I see no money coming from the federal government for this project.”

That's a shame, says Carruth, “because there are people who need help here. There are Grand Prairie farmers short of water. I would favor supplemental water coming into the prairie. What I'm opposed to is the project as it's currently proposed. Before a lawsuit, though, there are many steps to be taken that can re-direct the project. I use the term ‘re-direct’ purposely. The project doesn't need to be killed. If that happens, farmers on the Grand Prairie will suffer and I don't want that.”

Make no mistake, though. Carruth and fellow environmentalists are perfectly willing to take the project to court.

“I want to be vague, but if the project gets before a circuit court judge for approval, I've spoken to people who would be very interested in challenging it. If it gets that far, that's where the first lawsuit will happen. I don't mind stepping on toes. This issue is personal. The White River has intrinsic value for me and the community around here,” says Carruth, who lives in Clarendon, Ark., a river town in the refuge area.

By having a debate on the project, Arkansas is defining how irrigation and over-pumping aquifers will be addressed in the future. Whatever policy the state establishes with the Grand Prairie project will carry over to other areas.

“There are seven irrigation projects in the state already authorized by Congress. Law says one project will be picked out to be a demonstration project — the Grand Prairie is the chosen one. So what happens in the Grand Prairie will affect the rest of the state and these other projects,” says Carruth.

Bodron says when ground-breaking work will begin depends on Congress. “We've got plans and specs completed for the first item of work. We'll wait until funds are found and rights-of-way are acquired.”

Further, Bodron says the vast amount of misinformation regarding the project can be cleared up if people will just ask questions. “We're tickled to answer questions. There's a lot of misinformation out there. We're always happy to answer questions. Everything we do is open.”


E-mail david_bennett@intertec.com.