PRAIRIE COUNTY, Ark. - Water pressures on Arkansas’ Grand Prairie - renowned for rice-growing and duck hunting - continue unabated. Some situations are worse than others, but “pretty much” everyone in Hank Chaney’s area of responsibility is dealing with water shortages in some way. Often, that means rice, since it pays the mortgage, gets the first water. Any other crops get the liquid leftovers.

“In the future, he who holds the water will hold the power,” says Chaney, Extension agent for Prairie County. “I’ve heard that said for a long time. Just in the last few years I’ve come to understand how true that really is.

“The typical producer in this area has made many improvements to their land trying to get water down the row,” he says. “They’ve built reservoirs, tail-water recovery systems, they’ve graded fields - anything they could do to capture and use water proficiently. That’s a marked contrast to what many growers were doing 20 years ago.”

Even so, the water situation in the Grand Prairie is increasingly desperate. The last couple of years have been better with rainfall during the summer. Still, says Chaney, the alluvial aquifer hasn’t recharged and the specter of drought always looms.

“Hopefully, we never see one again,” says Chaney, “but a drought can turn on at any time. Now, on top of everything else, we’re running into water quality problems. If producers aren’t careful, they’ll pull water out of the ground that has salt or high pH or something else that’s detrimental.”

Driving around the Hazen/Stuttgart area, it’s obvious that producers are doing their best to stay ahead of the problem. Reservoirs and ditches have been carved from soils that grow rice so well. Many insist the Grand Prairie is a canary to the state’s coalmine.

“The aquifers drying up have really caused us to rethink how we’re using water,” says Chaney. “Unfortunately, it appears the rest of the state is headed to a similar predicament and the Grand Prairie is just ahead of the curve. We’re going to continue to be innovative with conservation practices, but I’m not sure how much time, ultimately, it’ll buy us.”

Another thing to consider is by building these reservoirs and ditches, quite a bit of valuable land is being taken out of production. And building such water structures isn’t cheap.

“You’ve got up-keep and filling them depends on rainfall. You can’t just dig a hole, push up some levees and be happy. Every time the wind blows, the waves will shift and wash against the bank and erosion occurs. That wear-and-tear has got to be mended or, over time, you’ll end up with a real mess.”

If something isn’t done about the water problem immediately, says Chaney, then rice acreage in the Grand Prairie will shrink steadily and soon.

“That would be a shame because this ground is perfect for growing rice. I hear city folks who don’t know much about farming say, ‘Well, just let the farmers grow beans or something.’ Now, with soybean prices where they are, producers would be foolish not to consider that. But that isn’t an answer to our water trouble – most years, you’ve still got to irrigate the beans. The soybean varieties we’ve got now can have outstanding yields. But if you can’t irrigate them the crop won’t reach its potential. It all comes back to the water.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com