Louisiana and Arkansas farmers along with representatives from a variety of agencies met on June 21 to discuss the Boeuf-Tensas Water Project, which would divert water from the Arkansas River into southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana.
The meeting was held to determine if sufficient interest exists in Louisiana to proceed with a project feasibility study for diverting surplus Arkansas River water, according to an invitation from Ann Cash, chair of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. More than 50 people representing federal and state agencies as well as farmers and landowners voiced support for the project, according to LSU AgCenter vice chancellor Rogers Leonard.
The water would move from the Arkansas River through southeast Arkansas and into northeast Louisiana through a series of existing canals as well as the Boeuf River and bayous Macon and Bartholomew.
The Boeuf-Tensas Regional Irrigation Water Distribution District has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers to transfer the surplus water into the Ouachita and Boeuf rivers and bayous Bartholomew and Macon through an ongoing project in Arkansas.
With the current project, a limited amount of water will find its way into Louisiana waterways, Leonard said. Louisiana landowners and farmers will need to support the project in Arkansas to complete the feasibility study to determine if expanding the current work is economically sound.
The general consensus of the group is that the final outcome will be mutually beneficial, officials said.
The water distribution district is responsible for the project, said Bill Branch, a retired water resources specialist with the LSU AgCenter who helped coordinate the meeting.
“This will support significant agriculture in the area, especially during periods of low rainfall,” Branch said.
The question of irrigation water as well as water for domestic use has wide-ranging significance.
"Water is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face in agriculture,” said Mike Strain, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry.
“It is critical that we have an adequate water supply for our farmers, ranchers and landowners not only for today but for future generations,” Strain added. “We must think long-term as we develop strategies to conserve this precious resource."
The affected area in Louisiana is between the Ouachita and Mississippi rivers and includes all or parts of Caldwell, Catahoula, Concordia, East Carroll, Franklin, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Richland, Tensas and West Carroll parishes. Agricultural crops in these parishes included 800,000 irrigated acres and 667,276 dryland acres in 2012.
The Corps has been working on the project but is ready to “pull the plug” if local support doesn’t materialize, Branch said. “New starts are unlikely to happen, so it is important to Arkansas and Louisiana farmers that the existing project be continued.”
The Boeuf-Tensas district asked for Louisiana’s help in coming up with matching funds necessary for the Corps to continue.
“What we need is a legal entity that can deal with the Corps to get matching funds,” Branch said. The Louisiana share would probably be $500,000, depending on results from the Corps’ feasibility study.
The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry is working to find any avenues to re-establish the health of stream systems and provide for increased flood control in northeast Louisiana, said Brad Spicer, assistant commissioner of soil and water conservation.
“We’re working with Arkansas and others,” Spicer said. “We’ll continue to pursue it to the extent we are able.”
Surface water has many benefits over groundwater for irrigation, Branch said. Water quality and pumping costs are the primary reasons for the desirability of using surface water.
Groundwater used for agricultural irrigation in northeast Louisiana comes from the Mississippi River alluvial aquifer, which is about 50-60 feet underground, Branch said.
“On average, this requires about one gallon of diesel to pump each acre-inch of irrigation water while pumping an acre-inch of surface water requires only half as much fuel,” Branch said.
“Pumps only have to lift surface water 5-10 feet into irrigation canals instead of 50-60 feet from wells,” he added. A surface-water pump costs $10,000-$15,000 while a well costs $25,000-$30,000.
“Northeast Louisiana has naturally occurring salinity in the groundwater in some areas, which often can be too much for sensitive crops, such as rice, corn and some varieties of soybeans,” Branch said. “Surface water does not have the salt.”
Last year Louisiana farmers irrigated 1.2 million acres, and about two-thirds were in northeast Louisiana. With increased interest in irrigation, “well drillers are drilling new irrigation wells as fast as they can,” Branch said.
The water is there, Branch said of availability from wells, but it is more expensive to pump and may contain too much salt.
Water is becoming too expensive for some agricultural applications in the western states, where irrigation was regularly used to compensate for lack of rainfall. As a result, irrigated production is moving to eastern “rain-fed” states, Branch said.
“The meeting was held to encourage Louisiana landowners and growers to form a legal entity to join with Arkansas to continue studies by the Corps to draw water from the Arkansas River,” Branch said.
The Corps conducts cost-benefit analyses, he added, but so far has only looked at the benefits for Arkansas. “We want them to look at the benefits that accrue to Louisiana landowners. This may tilt their decision in favor of continuing the overall project.”
The water would originate near Pine Bluff, Ark., and be pumped into a canal and then into Bayou Bartholomew, which flows into Louisiana.
“We hope the cost will prove beneficial,” Branch said. “Without that water, northeast Louisiana has no other source of more surface water to look forward to other than the Mississippi River.”
Arkansas is asking Louisiana to join them in keeping the Corps on the job.