It’s one of agriculture’s biggest ironies that water can be in such dire supply under the ground while inundating the countryside at the surface.

But in eastern Arkansas, this inequity can work to agriculture’s benefit with the right combination of conservation projects, says conservation officials.

Many of these projects were on display during a Water Resources Conservation Tour through Arkansas in late September. The tour was organized by the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts to show local, state and federally elected officials, landowners and conservation partners best management practices and projects currently being implemented to address critical groundwater depletion and water quality concerns in the region.

Conservation officials have declared 11 counties in Arkansas as critical groundwater decline areas and 21 more counties are under evaluation. The critical areas include portions of White and Pulaski counties, most of Lonoke County and all of Prairie, Jefferson, Arkansas, Ouachita, Calhoun, Bradley, Union and Columbia counties.

“Depending on the county, we’re withdrawing somewhere between 20 percent and 70 percent more water than the (Memphis Alluvial) aquifer will sustain,” said Andrew Wargo, AACD president and farm manager for Baxter Land Co. in southeast Arkansas. “In other words, we’re overdrafting the account in all the counties in eastern Arkansas.”

In addition, expected increases in world population will increase demand for agricultural water. Needs of municipalities, fish and wildlife and navigation also have to be considered in conservation plans.

A major problem, according to Wargo, is that groundwater protection and conservation “are no longer under the realm of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. “And at the last minute, there was no stimulus money approved for the Grand Prairie project.”

Wargo says the state “has to very aggressively implement savings techniques. We have to develop as rapidly as possible, varieties of various crops that demand less water, and we’ve got to aggressively develop more widespread use of tailwater recovery and diversions of surfacewater.”

Wargo believes that the implementation of the projects can preserve groundwater in Arkansas, “but I would hope that we can accomplish this before we have depleted the aquifer to the point that it cannot recover.”

Wargo says Arkansas farmers “are doing a better job of monitoring their runoff, and more farmers are taking advantage of the various conservation programs available through the government to implement tailwater recovery and other practices. There is a tax credit program which allows farmers to construct shallow water impoundments which can reduce your dependence on sub-surface water.”

The use of impoundments “are not only classic examples of how a diversion project works, but they also demonstrate how economical they are,” said Wargo. “We’re paying between $25 and $45 an acre foot for water today that we’re pulling out of the ground due to the expense of getting it to where we need it. We’re pumping on these diversion projects for way under $10 an acre foot.”

Completed and planned water conservation projects include:

Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project — Combines on-farm conservation measures and irrigation storage reservoirs with an irrigation canal network to deliver surface water throughout the area. Provides supplemental irrigation water to 240,000 acres of cropland. Seasonal flooding of 38,000 acres of cropland will provide fall and winter feeding and nesting areas for waterfowl.

Bayou Meto Basin — Protects groundwater and supplies on about 300,000 acres of cropland and fish farming.

Boeuf-Tensas — Provides adequate water supply for irrigation of more than 800,000 acres of cropland, preserves drinking water for rural communities and includes wildlife enhancement measures.

Walnut Bayou — In Little River County, will supply water for 30,000 acres of cropland. Initial planning has begun. Begins at the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line and continues east along Walnut Bayou to it confluence with the Red River.

Plum Bayou — Project was completed in 1993 at a cost of $977,000 and serves 14,200 irrigated acres. The Natural Resources Conservation Service-funded project “showed we could take surfacewater and redistribute it with the cooperation of landowners,” said Dennis Carmen, currently project director of the Grand Prairie Project.

Point Remove Wetland Reclamation and Irrigation Project — Completed in 2006. Provides irrigation water to 14,000 acres of cropland in Pope and Conway counties and winter water for the 6,000 acre Ed Gordon Wildlife Management Area.

Areas awaiting funding include:

Bayou DeView — Would serve 105,500 acres of irrigated cropland in Poinsett and Craighead counties.

Upper L’Anguille Irrigation Project — would serve 123,498 acres of cropland in Poinsett and Craighead counties.

Little Red Irrigation Project — would serve about 25,478 acres of cropland.

North Prairie Irrigation Study — encompasses approximately 111,080 acres in north Prairie Count. The area has approximately 79,585 acres of cropland and 3,187 acres of fish ponds.

The tour included a stop at Chesapeake Energy, in Searcy, Ark. The company is diverting water from the Little Red River into a large reservoir. Water from the reservoir is then used to break up shale for extraction of natural gas. The project includes a number of safeguards to insure that excess water only is taken from the river. “We are diverting water that would otherwise end up in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Mike McGinness, senior assistant manager for Chesapeake Energy.

Several Arkansas farmers are involved in conservation efforts through participation in Discovery Farms. They allow their farms’ impact on the environment to be monitored for five to seven years.

The initial phase will be to collect baseline information on impact under current management. If management adjustments are warranted, then these adjustments will be evaluated.

Knowledge gained from Arkansas Discovery Farms will help farmers, natural resource managers and decision-makers implement more effective practices and policy based on science and research that could affect millions of acres of privately owned land in Arkansas.

The U.S. Geological Survey has installed monitoring equipment in 22 wells for real-time Web access of groundwater levels. A modem transmits every six hours to the USGS Web page at http://ar.water.usgs.gov.

The PHAUCET program was developed in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. It allows irrigators to plug in soil type and crop information to determine the appropriate size hole to punch in irrigation tubing to prevent water running out the opposite end of a field.

“One of our growers, Steve Stevens (at Baxter Land Co.), documented water savings of 25 percent,” Wargo said.

Over the last 10 years, Arkansas has lost an average of 7 feet from the alluvial aquifer. It uses an average of 7 billion gallons a day, while 3.36 billion gallons is sustainable.

“We won’t have a viable irrigation supply if we don’t do something about it,” said Kalven Trice with NRCS in Arkansas.

Wargo says Arkansas aquifers “have recovered a little bit over the last two years because of changes in cropping patterns and rainfall patterns. But if we keep looking at $3 corn and $6 rice, we’ll reverse that trend in 2010 because everything that can be will be planted in rice. We’ll start to drawdown all over again.”

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com