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.”

Groundwater use

On groundwater use…

“Groundwater is a good example of going back and examining whether we have made progress. A new groundwater law was passed in 1991. We have, for over 20 years, put together groundwater reports based on measurements taken from over 1,000 wells around the state. That data, with the help of the USGS, has been put into models to see what trends are with groundwater depletion.

“Where we’ve found problems that aren’t going away, our commission has declared critical groundwater areas. There has been no regulation in these areas, but we’ve tried to help people reduce their groundwater use through tax credits for land-leveling, reservoir-building and conversion from ground- to surface-water use. From our perspective, we still haven’t gotten a handle on the problem because we still use more from the ground than is recharged from the surface.

“At the same time, the demand for irrigation water has risen. Farmers need the certainty irrigation provides.”

On how the state is divided, some of the differences between regions…

“The calculations in our ‘Water Demand Forecast Report’, which is complete, were broken down in several ways. One is by county use. So, for each county in the state, the different uses: livestock and poultry, municipal and public supplies, irrigation, and other things are identified and quantities listed in the ‘Demand Report.’

“Another way water use has been broken down is by industry. The second-largest water use (after agriculture) is thermal electric power generation where steam is generated or water is used to cool power plants.

“Since there are different challenges in different parts of the state for the next year, we’re moving into a phase where people will come together within their regions to decide what the pressing issues are. There regions: north Arkansas (a band across the Ozarks from the Oklahoma border to where the mountains meet the Delta), the west-central region (River Valley counties from the Oklahoma border to Pulaski County), southwestern (the smallest planning area that takes in Texarkana in the Red River drainage area), south-central (the Ouachita Mountains and the gulf-coastal plain in south Arkansas where timber is dominant along with livestock and poultry), east Arkansas (the largest region and also the largest water-user as it takes in the entire Delta).

“The folks in north Arkansas probably don’t want to spend their time trying to solve problems with the alluvial aquifer in the Delta. So, they’ll deal with issues related to their part of the state. The folks in the Delta are most concerned, obviously, that there is sufficient water available for irrigation, river navigation, and water quality.

“One thing that’s also on the table for eastern and southern Arkansas is population declines in many counties. In some, it’s dramatic and long-term projections aren’t that great. Those who depart leave behind infrastructure that must be maintained. But with lower customer bases it becomes increasingly difficult to pay for that maintenance of sewers, water plants and other infrastructures.

“So, there are challenges across the board, some unique to certain regions, some that apply to the whole state.

“Even groundwater depletion doesn’t just affect eastern Arkansas. The agriculture industry in that region drives so much of our state economy that it’s very important to the whole state.”

Plans for the plan

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.”

New projects?

Are massive reservoirs being considered? New canal systems?

“Under the current water plan, one of the things we do is determine excess surface water amounts. That means after all the in-stream uses have been met – everything from navigational needs, to fish and wildlife, to needs for riparian landowners along a waterway – we can take a thin slice and move it to non-riparian landowners. Those would be people who don’t have factories, plants or farms directly on a body of water. A permit can then be issued for that water to be moved. That’s one way we try to use the available water without harming anyone else’s current use. That resulted from work done in the water plan in the past.

“In the case of the irrigation projects currently under construction, some of the water delivered will immediately be put on cropland. However, with the irrigation season being in dryer months, the wisest thing to do is pump water out of the White or Arkansas rivers in the spring when levels are high.

“If that slice is taken in the spring and moved through canals to on-farm reservoirs, farmers would have a buffer for those summer months. They’d have the ability to use water immediately and also use the water from the reservoirs.

“The idea is to provide the user with flexibility and options. They can use the moved and stored water. Then, in the middle of the summer when rivers and reservoirs are down, if the aquifer has been able to recharge, they can still turn to pumping groundwater.

“We saw that in 2012. The White River Project and Bayou Meto Project are not delivering water currently. But during several periods of the 2012 drought, there were times when the non-riparian permits wouldn’t have allowed the pumping plants to run.

“As we saw, many farmers used every drop from their reservoirs and there was no rain to refill them. When that happens again and the projects are delivering water and the pumping plants must shut off, the farmers can go to wells as a back-up. Those are the sorts of things we’re looking for as creative solutions.”

Top questions you get from farmers regarding the water plan? Top concern?

“They worry that the state of Arkansas will set minimum stream flows on bayous and rivers that would cut off riparian landowners’ pumps. If they rely on groundwater, they fear regulation of their ability to pump water.”

And that would economic disaster for the state? That would essentially be cutting its own throat.

“Water drives our whole economy. That is why we are working with water users to prioritize the big water issues and come up with better management strategies to meet all our water needs. We have the water. It is a matter of using it to everyone’s benefit.”