Rapidly diminishing water supplies have become an increasing plague in many states where thirsty residents scan the horizon for clouds. In the Mid-South, Arkansas has largely avoided such problems but that doesn’t mean there aren’t pressing water-related issues.

Here are some fast facts:

  • There are 12 major aquifers used for water supply in Arkansas. Two of the largest are the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer located in eastern Arkansas's Delta, and the Sparta/Memphis aquifer in eastern and southern Arkansas.
  • U.S. Geological Survey models show that 3,374 million gallons per day (MGD) is sustainable for use in the alluvial aquifer. Models indicate that using 87 MGD is sustainable in the Sparta/Memphis aquifer. However, for 2010, there was 7,592 MGD pumped from the alluvial aquifer and 192 MGD pumped from the Sparta/Memphis aquifer.
  • Water uses are estimated to increase statewide by 13 percent by 2050. At this time, 27 percent of Arkansas's water demands are met using surface water, and 73 percent comes from groundwater. Agriculture is the biggest water user.
  • Arkansas receives 43 to 69 inches of rainfall annually.
  • More than 600,000 acres of lakes exist in the state. Corps of Engineers impoundments, state-owned reservoirs, and other lakes in Arkansas store over 5 trillion gallons of water.
  • Arkansas has 9,700 miles of rivers and streams with approximately 280 billion gallons of water flowing through them every day.

With that background, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC) has undertaken an update to the “Arkansas Water Plan.” The plan was part of the late-January Arkansas Soil and Water Education Conference agenda and presented by Edward Swaim, ANRC Water Resources Division Manager.

Swaim recently spoke with Farm Press about the plan’s origins, the importance of agriculture in the state and how the update might be implemented. Among his comments:

Is it true that the Arkansas Water Plan has been in place since the 1990s?

“Arkansas has always done some form of water planning. There are State reports from back in the 1930s looking at our water resources and needs are and water problem challenges in the state.

“In 1969, the legislature decided to call that the ‘Arkansas Water Plan’ and assigned it to our commission.

“In the early 1970s, a lot of work was done and several reports were released. By 1975, the first set of documents you could put your hands on and call the ‘Arkansas Water Plan’ were done. It was a compilation of information on what we used water for, how much and where, as well as an inventory of water available at that time to meet those needs in reservoirs, streams and aquifers.

“Then, when the bad drought occurred in 1980, there was a heightened interest in water issues. Several things happened as a result. Water legislation was passed and several task forces were set up. One of the results was an update of the water plan. Several reports – most based on large river basins – cataloged the amount of water available, water uses, and estimates of the amount of use and availability. The reports also discuss potential problems with supply.

“So, that was all done in the wake of the 1980 drought. The reports were published in the 1980s. There was the ‘East Arkansas Basin Report’ an ‘Ouachita River Basin Report’ and others.”

On work in the 1990s…

“In 1990, the committee produced an executive summary of all the work done in the 1980s. There were 28 specific issues identified with recommendations to address all 28. Those issues ranged from very broad – like the need for increased education about water – to more specific – as in groundwater declines in east Arkansas and specific projects that needed to be built.

“On groundwater, the recommendations led to suggested legislation creating a program to measure and evaluate groundwater availability. Annual reports have been produced since showing growing problems with groundwater availability, including places where the groundwater has been drawn down so low that its quality has suffered or it’s difficult to pump.

“After 1990, those recommendations have been largely implemented. But they haven’t been completely successful for fixing the problems identified. It’s a kind of work in progress.

“From 1990 to now we’ve been fairly static in terms of revisiting the calculations made in the 1980s. Consider, say, excess surface-water availability from a particular stream or river. We still use the calculations from the last update. But now we have better data available and it’s easier to get to because it’s computerized.

“Because new and better data is available is one of the reasons the legislature said ‘go back and update what you have from the 1990 plan.’

“Another reason for the update is that interest in water has increased. Of course, we depend on water for economic health in the state – from recreation to farming to industry, navigation, etc. People realize the economic benefits of water and want to make sure we manage it well. We also need to make sure we address new developments like the Fayetteville Shale. This water use was not even thought about when the plan was last updated.

“Another reason to update the plan is to look at where our water management programs can be improved.”