While the nation's collective gaze nervously scans the horizon for foreign madmen, there are plenty of increasingly neglected bogeymen on the domestic front. One, a particularly nasty fellow, continues to make his home in the alluvial aquifer under Arkansas' parched Grand Prairie. Stricken with an unquenchable thirst, the insidious imp couldn't be happier that most folks have forgotten him.

When the 2003 federal budget recently came out with no funding for the White River Irrigation District (WRID) demonstration project, it was received with quiet aplomb by conservationists and resigned, accepting shoulder shrugs by proponents. There were neither whooping celebrations nor gnashing of teeth.

“Make no mistake: the zero funding was a watershed event,” says Don McKenzie, director of the Arkansas office of the Wildlife Management Institute. “This was the first year since the whole Grand Prairie project began years ago that it has received no funding from the federal government.

“But it's been amazingly quiet. Those of us who have been working for years to turn the Grand Prairie project in a different direction, have been careful not to gloat.”

Not surprisingly, proponents have a different take. “I think what happened is we faced a war-type budget,” says John Edwards, director of the WRID. “What we're seeing not only with the 2003 budget but with what'll shape up with the 2004 budget is the country is focusing on war concerns. A lot of domestic programs will be facing difficult times in the next couple of years — at least.”

Why the fuss?

Scientists say rice farmers on the Grand Prairie have pumped the alluvial aquifer situated beneath it to the brink of collapse. The aforementioned WRID demonstration project is an attempt to use more surface water as an alternative to sinking more and deeper wells. Scientists say 2015 is the cutoff date. If something isn't done well before then, the aquifer will be exhausted. Rice farming — big on the Grand Prairie currently — would be lost to the region.

The projected cost for completing the project is over $300 million and would take some 10 years to complete. Proponents of the project (including the WRID, the Corps of Engineers, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and others) claim water can be pumped from the White River and sent through a series of pipes and canals to around 1,000 parched farmers without damaging the environment.

Opponents of the project (including a broad coalition of environmentalists, sportsmen and municipalities situated along the White River) contend the pumping plan threatens the nearby White River refuge — a huge, environmentally rich area of old-growth timber. While many opponents agree that Grand Prairie farmers need help, they are vehemently opposed to diverting White River water.

An opponent's view

McKenzie points to a convergence of events to explain the funding collapse. He doesn't deny that the impending war probably has something to do with it as does the general morose state of the economy.

“There are also huge federal deficits being incurred by our government. But the foremost reason for zero funding of the project is that the Bush administration and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) despise the project. They've made it clear they don't want the project to happen, that they don't want the Corps of Engineers to grow their business into irrigation projects.”

The Bush administration has been pilloried for many of its environmental stances. Why are they going the opposite direction with this?

It's an irony of the conservation arena, says McKenzie. The same people that do great things for the environment and conservation on one hand can do terrible things with the other.

“That's one reason my organization never gets involved in endorsing campaigns or politicians. No matter who is elected, there are certain things any politician can do that are good for conservation. A perfect example of this is the Bush administration's unwillingness to green light big Corps of Engineer water resource boondoggles.”

McKenzie claims this is the first time that opponents of the project “put our foot down” and said no funds should be allocated to the project. Last year, opponents supported on-farm conservation work.

“But the Corps, NRCS and irrigation district decided they'd done all the on-farm work they wanted to do and turned back millions of dollars to the federal treasury. They said they'd done all the on-farm work and wanted a pumping station and delivery system. They said they couldn't do any more on-farm work.

“Everyone watching this says there's a lot more bonafide on-farm irrigation efficiency and conservation work that can be done. What they're doing is making a point: they aren't going to bother with this any more unless funding for a pumping station and delivery system is forthcoming.”

Much of this tactic is psychological, claims McKenzie. “The truth is their interest isn't in saving water and increasing efficiency. Their interest is in a massive engineering project and getting money for that.”

Proponent's view

Edwards says such claims are ridiculous. He says there's a simple reason $5 million out of the $12 million marked for on-farm construction was sent back.

“We can't solve the Grand Prairie problems by building on-farm storage. If we get too far ahead of the (White River) diversion part of the plan all the water that naturally flows down ditches and streams and whatnot will be picked off. If everyone has a tail-water recovery system, there won't be any water left in the natural waterways.

“We felt it was irresponsible — both fiscally and environmentally — to keep building on-farm storage with federal money with the delay in diversion funds. We don't need to have all these storage systems without diversion to support them. When we're talking about a cost-share with state and federal money, we must be responsible with hard-earned tax dollars. That's the truth.”

Further, the nation must keep food security as a top priority, says Edwards. The demonstration project is a part of that.

“When you look across America and see how much farmland is going out of production, it's a cause for concern. The last figure I saw out of Texas is that farmland has dropped to around 600,000 acres. That's mainly due to a lack of water.

“Here in Arkansas, right next door, we have an opportunity to balance our water use. We've never done that before and still aren't. That's why this project is important.

“Are we going to balance our resources or keep doing things the same way? If we continue to do the same old thing, it'll lead us to nothing but trouble.”

A bill has been introduced in the Arkansas legislature requesting $400,000 for WRID. The money, if approved, would be used for the administrative side of the WRID. Funds would go through Arkansas Soil and Water to help defray the costs of keeping the WRID office open for the next two years.

“We still have on-farm contracts out. It will likely take 18 months to two years to get those on-farm projects finished. We've got a responsibility to monitor and keep up with those contracts.

“And that brings up another point: we're being as frugal as we can and constantly monitor our expenses and how we can keep costs down.

“The state is in financial straits and we understand that.”

Edwards says it's remarkable how much attention was paid to things like the WRID water project just a couple of years ago. Now, the emphasis is elsewhere and few are making noise.

“People are frightened for many reasons and it's sad. We have a lot of people — particularly in the farm community — who are worried about their immediate survival. They're concerned about right now, not for a project that's years from completion.”

Berry factor

Both sides are watching Rep. Marion Berry, Ark.-D, who now has a seat not only on the House Appropriations Committee, but also on the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee (a subcommittee specifically responsible for funding water resource projects).

“One key that opponents had in fighting the project was Arkansas didn't have anyone on either the Senate or House appropriations committees,” admits McKenzie. “Proponents didn't have a ‘ringer,’ for lack of a better term. But now they do and that will definitely throw a wrench in the works for next year's budget. The good news is that Rep. Berry will still be fighting an uphill battle to get funding. He's trying to recover from a zero appropriation, asking for major funding of a very controversial project in a time of war and economic uncertainty. That's uphill all the way.”

With all that has gone wrong with the demonstration project lately, Edwards says Berry's landing such strategic seats is a “significant event in favor of the project. (Berry's appointment) is a strong indication that the project will continue to have support at a time when support is really needed.”

But Berry, who spoke with Delta Farm Press on March 5, says any federal funding for the project is in serious jeopardy.

“First of all, I think the project is worthwhile and I've always supported it,” says Berry. “That was true even before I was elected to Congress.

“There's a big story in the Washington Post this morning about the shortage of fresh water worldwide. That shortage is going to become more and more critical. Economic development will hinge — and we're not just talking about the ability to irrigate agriculture crops — on the ability to provide fresh water. This is an issue that will grow and grow domestically and across the world. There have been wars fought over a lot less.

“Having said that, the Grand Prairie project has been studied thoroughly and I'm confident it can be done. However, President Bush has clearly indicated that he doesn't want to the Corps of Engineers to move forward with anything like that. For that reason, I'd say it's unlikely that we'll be able to get much funding for the project.

“Will we get any funding at all? I don't know. I know the White House is absolutely dug in on this. Over the last couple of years, I've been involved in some pretty tough negotiations where they needed me really bad, and I still couldn't make them move on (the project). I'm not very optimistic about the project.”

Does Berry think it will it be difficult to get funding for anything with war hanging over the nation?

“It'll make it a lot more difficult. I came to this place believing that the secret to economic growth is education and infrastructure. We're going to do some infrastructure projects, we're just going to have to work through some very difficult economic problems,” he says.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.