A tributary of the St. Francis River, the L’Anguille River flows from Jonesboro, Ark., to just east of Marianna, Ark., in Lee County. Although far fewer than in the past, many farmers still draw irrigation water from the L’Anguille along its 110-mile course. They also put runoff back into the river from their fields.

Both dynamics are of great concern to the federal government.

That’s why, on one of the hottest days of the summer, Phil Tacker is slogging through mud to check an irrigation project setup outside Palestine, Ark. With the help of colleagues and farmers along the L’Anguille, the associate professor and Arkansas Extension engineer wants to know exactly what’s happening in the watershed and the impact farming is having.

“We’re doing a variety of things on project fields, including measuring, as best we can, how much water is being pumped on and how much is being lost off the fields. As for the water being lost, we want to catch it and check the quality of what’s going back into the L’Anguille.”

Making the issue more pressing, the L’Anguille has been designated as a priority watershed in regard to Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulations. The TMDL into the river’s watershed must be kept at a certain level and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC) is funding a study to determine how best to do that.

“We want data showing ‘here’s what we’re doing to save water, here’s the quality of what’s coming off the field.’ We’re checking the turbidity of the water since the concern is the amount of sediment in the runoff from fields.”

From preliminary data, Tacker suspects the water may be of better quality coming off the fields than water pulled from the river. And in some cases it is better than the water pumped from irrigation wells.

“That would seem to make some sense — especially on rice fields. The fields can act as a vegetative filter, of sorts.”

Being proactive

This year, Ron Hall’s irrigation test field is in soybeans. Last year, it was in rice. Just up the road, Terry McGraw’s test field is in rice.

“With Terry and Ron’s help, we’re trying to be proactive in addressing the situation. Like other farmers working with us, they’re letting us know what they’re doing in the fields. We needed that cooperation from start to finish. They tell us they’ve worked it so many times, put this fertilizer out and applied this pesticide. They’re also putting in conservation practices like flash-board risers and conservation tillage.”

Such interaction helps researchers keep up with what the crop costs to grow. At the end of the three-year study, “we’ll know how the conservation practices have done, what’s coming off the field and if everything has been economical for the farmer.”

Tacker has placed flow meters on the fields (to monitor the water going on the fields) and runoff monitors at the field bottoms (to measure flow rates and to catch samples).

There are several reasons Hall and McGraw were asked to participate.

“One, obviously, is cooperators need to be in the L’Anguille watershed. They’re certainly part of that. Also, their farms are close together so we can gather samples quickly.

“Second, they were willing to work with us. That’s a key because it can pull them away from regular work. Just like today — they’re taking some time to do this when they’ve got 100 things to do.

“Third, we needed production-sized fields farmed by growers willing to be innovative. Both of these guys fit that bill — they’ve already been using some conservation practices and continue to look for ways to save water.”

Hall has also worked with the Extension verification programs over the years and McGraw had a rice verification field this year.

“These are good, solid guys and great farmers,” says Mitch Crow, St. Francis County Extension agent. “Some of the data we got last year was interesting. On Ron’s rice last year, he had a 19 percent savings in water pumped on the field where he used irrigation tubing and MIRI (multiple inlet rice irrigation). Terry’s been using MIRI for a few years, now.”

The farms

McGraw (recently profiled by Elton Robinson in Delta Farm Press, see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/060707-wheat-winner/index.html) farms about 2,800 acres total — 950 acres of rice with the balance in soybeans. He harvested some 350 acres of wheat.

“The water table around here is dropping,” says McGraw, who serves as president of the St. Francis County Farm Bureau. “We’re losing groundwater in a big way. The aquifer just isn’t recharging. We certainly don’t want to get into a situation like farmers are facing over in Arkansas County.”

Hall farms 3,300 acres with about 1,300 in rice and the rest in soybeans. He had about 300 acres of wheat. Since their farms are so close together, it’s not surprising he has views similar to those of McGraw on the water situation.

“To address this, it would probably be a good idea to form a coalition of farmers and landowners,” says McGraw. “We need to have a broad group that can research and study this…to come up with solutions before the state government dictates what we do.”

Water concerns are “bound to come up” in the state’s next legislative session, says Tacker. ”The Grand Prairie has already been designated as a critical groundwater area (for more information, visit http://www.aswcc.arkansas.gov/critical_groundwater_designation_fact_sheet.pdf). The concern is this could lead to rules on how much can be pumped and how many wells can be in a given area. Before any regulations would occur there would be notifications, public hearings and lengthy legal proceedings. But it is also supposed to establish some support for growers wanting to reduce or alleviate groundwater pumping — funds for tail-water recovery ditches and the like.”

The problem with building tail-water recoveries and reservoirs is money.

“To put them in costs a lot,” says McGraw. “In this part of the country, agriculture is already barely hanging on. There’s no excess money to spend on such things.”

The EQIP program, if you’re lucky enough to qualify, is supposed to provide 50 percent cost-share for water-saving projects.

“Now, it’s actually about 40 percent because the program hasn’t taken into account that the cost of pipe and other things have gone up. Those increases haven’t been factored in over the last couple of years.”

“If you build a tail-water recovery ditch with EQIP, you have to build to their specifications,” says Hall. “It costs a lot more to do that (and we could probably do it for less)…cost…and not lose as much land to the project. When you put acreage in a reservoir, it’s not going to be raising crops and it won’t be bringing in any money.”

If state funding could pick up more of the cost, it would help. And such help would seem possible because Arkansas currently has a large surplus of funds — often cited at over $600 million.

“If they’d allow it, we could put many of these conservation practices in,” says McGraw. “That would seem to be something they’d be interested in — agriculture remains the backbone of this state.”

McGraw hopes Farm Bureau will address the possibilities. “If we could get a payment through the CRP program for ground put into reservoirs, it would help farmers. Under the EQIP program, if you’re paid to build a reservoir, it can’t be farmed anymore. The landowner gives up all those acres — 30, 40, sometimes 100. And that reservoir isn’t benefiting just the landowner — it benefits everyone who needs water.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com