How long do you suspect the updated plan will take in preparation?

“Over 175 volunteers came together in Lonoke, Ark., in January to start the ‘Issues and Recommendations’ phase of the update.

“Before that, we spent over a year crunching numbers to put out reports on how much water we use now and will need out to 2050 and where we can get water to meet those needs. That’s been the first half of the effort.

“By this summer we hope to have the regional groups’ suggestions on what issues are most important and ways we can address the issues.

“Then, we’ll get more public comment to see if we missed any issues or recommendations.

“What we will not have at the end of the update process is the answer to every question. What we want to do is raise the questions and say, ‘okay, here are some ways to deal with this. Now is time to either find the money to do it or go to the legislature to see if laws need to be changed to try to adapt Arkansas law to fit some of the recommendations.’

“Or – and this has happened in the past – there are things that can be done in local areas where people may decide to build a project.

“We also want to keep everyone engaged. That way the next time something like the Fayetteville Shale pops up there’s a way to reconvene people and see what data needs to be collected and adapt. We need to have a plan to respond to changes in the economy or water use as we go.”

Regarding the alluvial aquifer, can you describe the amount of water being drawn out versus the recharge?

“Water isn’t ‘owned’ by anyone, it is a shared resource. If you have property rights to land above the alluvial aquifer, you’re free to drill a well and use it. So are your neighbors.

“But the short-term use to make it through the next year can be in conflict with the long-term availability of that water. The aquifer doesn’t recharge fast enough and the average level keeps going down. We have seen areas grow where the water table is so low it doesn’t make economic sense to try and pump it or drill wells to chase the supply around.

“At the same time, there are people who have plenty of groundwater and haven’t seen declines. They’re just in a more favorable place in the aquifer with better recharge.

“That’s been a stumbling block because too often those who have the water and those who have seen aquifer declines don’t view their interests as being in common. Some people say, ‘I have plenty of water so there’s no need for a solution here. I don’t need a solution.’

“Overall, though, the calculations of groundwater use done in the water plan update show that we pump about twice from the aquifer per year as is recharged. This should be a concern to every citizen of Arkansas.”

In terms of state law is there anything that says a municipality or the like takes precedence over a farming entity? Or if you can’t come up with proper solutions with this effort will the state legislature step in?

“Several court cases have ruled that water for public supplies and domestic use has to be protected over other uses. In laws on allocation of surface water during shortage, the legislature has put drinking water highest on the list of uses.

“I’ll tell you where this could be a problem. The alluvial aquifer is a shallow aquifer with a lot of water availability. Beneath that is the Sparta aquifer with a lot less yield than the alluvial.

“Both aquifers are used for drinking water but the Sparta is especially useful for public systems because treatments costs are low. Sparta water is clean enough that, in some cases, it takes little more than chlorination.

“Consider a situation where a farmer has lost the ability to pull water from the alluvial aquifer. I don’t understand how it makes sense economically, but some have drilled into the Sparta for irrigation water. It costs more to drill a Sparta well, more to pump it, and the yield is low compared to an alluvial well. Since crop irrigation uses a lot of water, more demands will be put on the Sparta.

“So, in some areas, we may have set up a conflict between public drinking water systems and landowners’ need for irrigation. And the cost to the taxpayer is that the municipal system will have to look for another source. Surface water sources require much more treatment, so it would cost millions of dollars to make the conversion.

“Right now, case law in Arkansas would favor a drinking water system. If, say, a city in the Delta was having problems with its wells because of competition with irrigation, the court would hear arguments that the domestic use of water must be protected. The judge would be asked to limit agricultural use. Those are exactly the sort of conflicts we’re trying to avoid by updating the water plan.

“The state has a lot of water. We have more water than we need. It’s a matter of proper management of that water. And that may mean there are times when you need to store some water from abundant rains. We don’t want to get into a situation where someone is regulated in their use.”