No one contests the fact that the aquifers beneath Arkansas' Grand Prairie, a prime rice-growing area, are being pumped dry. Other than that, there's plenty to argue about.

Whether the proposed $319 million Army Corps of Engineers White River project (which would irrigate Arkansas Grand Prairie farmland with diverted White River water) goes through as is or another plan is adopted, rice acreage will be lost, says Don McKenzie. That's a key message a coalition of environmental groups and municipalities along the White River pound home in a new study put together over the last nine months.

“One way or the other, the Grand Prairie's rice acreage will have to drop. The Corps and White River Irrigation District (WRID) admit this in their numbers,” says McKenzie, who heads the Arkansas office of the Wildlife Management Institute.

“Different people can look at the same situation and arrive at different conclusions. The Corps looks at the Grand Prairie and the declining aquifer and sees the problems as not having enough water. They've designed a project to get more water,” says McKenzie.

The coalition, meanwhile, has looked at the situation from the perspective “that since 1929 it's been known that the aquifer is being used at an unsustainable rate. Further, from 1970 to 2000, irrigated rice in Arkansas increased by more than 1 million acres while the facts about the aquifer were already known. In that context, the coalition sees the problem as unsustainable water demand.”

Here's the deal, says the coalition: one thing the public hasn't heard or understood is that even with the building of the Corps' project, Grand Prairie rice acreage will have to be cut.

“Very few people know that and it makes a huge difference in how people look at the Corps' proposal. The current irrigated acreage in the Grand Prairie is 247,556. Using the Corps' plan would provide water for only 209,046 acres (slightly above 84 percent of the current acreage). So somewhere along the line 38,510 acres of irrigated land will be lost.”

If, as McKenzie and colleagues claim, both sides admit rice acreage has to be taken out of production, has any plan been put into place about the breakdown of lost acres?

“No it hasn't, and that's a really volatile question. The Corps acknowledges these numbers, but they don't say who's going to lose out and how,” says McKenzie.

Horse feathers to the lot of it, says Corps project manager Jim Bodron. Opposition claims of errors in the Corps report are ridiculous and easily refuted, he says.

“There are no errors in the report. They've simply misinterpreted some of the numbers. There's no smoking gun. The project won't supply 100 percent of the water. We've never said the project would meet 100 percent of the needs. I believe the project reliability is around 87 percent. Some 8,800 acres will be converted to cropland. We won't be able to provide water on an average annual basis to fully meet the area's demands. That means that on some land there won't be crops or they won't be fully irrigated.”

Further, Bodron says according to experts with NRCS and the Extension Service, 80 percent water efficiency in the area — something the coalition is pushing — isn't possible. Also, Bodron says the coalition plan actually backs up a key Corps claim.

“I think what the opposition is offering is a clear choice. If you want to have continued irrigated agriculture on the Grand Prairie, you must have an import system. Their plan points that out,” says Bodron.

The coalition's plan would cost around $158 million, although McKenzie admits the numbers are still a bit rough.

“The roughness is due to the big unknowns: how many on-farm acres of irrigation reservoirs are supportable in the Grand Prairie without the White River being affected?

The Corps claims that 1,379 acres can be built. We think that's very conservative, but don't know how much more is possible. We're contracting an independent analysis to see what that answer is.”

From here, the Grand Prairie can go three ways, says McKenzie: the Corps' proposal goes forward as is, the whole thing gets shut down because of yearly Congressional appropriations battles, or “we can come up with a compromise that will make everyone reasonably content. Everyone has to give, though.”

However, there's one thing the coalition is “hard-line” on: any pumping of the White River is out.

“Any proposal that puts a pumping station on the White River we will stand in opposition against. No amount of tinkering around the edges, minor concessions, or offering environmental ornaments will change that. Take that off the table and we're wide-open to finding ways to deal with the problem.”

Bodron says the Corps is in the process of finalizing a response to the coalition's plan and claims. When available, it can be found at: http://www.mvm.usace.army.mil.


e-mail: david_bennett@intertec.com