In early November, Congress approved $12 million of additional funding for Arkansas' controversial Grand Prairie Demonstration Project. Part of the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, the legislation is now waiting for President Bush's signature. When he puts down the pen, the money will be distributed.

Although far short of the $35 million originally requested, the appropriated funds are significant because this money will be used not only for on-farm portions of the project (building reservoirs and the like) but to begin construction of the pumping station on the White River.

Some scientists say that over the last century rice farmers on the Grand Prairie have pumped the alluvial aquifer to the brink of collapse. The project is an attempt to use more surface water as an alternative to sinking more and deeper wells.

Scientists say 2015 is the cutoff date — if something isn't done within the next 14 years, the aquifer will be exhausted.

The projected cost for completing the project is around $300 million and should take 10 years. Proponents of the project (including the White River Irrigation District, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, NRCS and others) claim water can be pumped from the White River and sent through a series of pipes and canals to around 1,000 parched farmers without damaging the environment.

Opponents of the project — including a broad coalition of environmentalists, sportsmen and municipalities situated along the White River — contend the pumping plan threatens the nearby White River refuge, a huge, environmentally rich area of old-growth timber. While many opponents agree that Grand Prairie farmers need help, they also believe the plan is full of holes.

“I've been asked if I'm disappointed (the project) didn't get the full ($35 million) asked for earlier this year. The answer is absolutely not. Before Sept. 11, the economy had already slowed down some. The Senate had already approved us for $16.3 million. We're very happy with what we received,” says John Edwards, executive director of the WRID.

Once the money is dispersed, there's a set of procedures to lay the groundwork for construction, says Edwards. There are real estate parcels to acquire and additional planning left to do.

“We won't be moving dirt the day after we get the money. In my estimation, it'll still be several months before actual construction for water withdrawal features starts. As far as the on-farm features, we'll resume that rather quickly. One of my goals for the 2003 fiscal year is to try and get more funds for the on-farm features,” says Edwards.

If things go as Edwards hopes they will, is it reasonably safe to assume that by next summer ground will be broken for the pumping station?

“Barring any unforeseen events, I think that's a reasonable assumption. But as I've cautioned everyone, we're in a new time in our nation's history. We shouldn't take anything for granted.”

One “unforeseen circumstances” could be an opponent's court action to have the project halted. There have been rumblings for months that such action will take place.

“My organization isn't a litigious one. I have no opportunity for court action. What others will do, I can't say for sure. I certainly wouldn't rule it out, though. There are plenty of serious problems with the project's planning, procedures and analyses that merit challenges,” says Don McKenzie, head of Arkansas' Wildlife Management Institute.

Before going the litigious route, however, McKenzie thinks there's still a strong case to be made in the political arena.

“A huge number of people in this state oppose this project. The White House doesn't like it, and the House of Representatives fought to keep from giving money to this project. The Office of Management and Budget doesn't like this project. Something very few people know is that the Corps of Engineers at the national level asked for zero funding for this project for fiscal 2002. There's a lot going for the opponents right now.”

Edwards says many of the ideas and concerns opponents have brought up have been incorporated into the final plans. That's made it a better project across all levels, whether from an efficiency standpoint, environmental or otherwise, he says. For that reason Edwards vows to stay in contact with opponents.

One such idea came in response to the project's original plan to have water flow through natural streams. Because of environmental concerns about that, a decision was made to go with underground pipe. Streams will be left to maintain their natural flows.

McKenzie believes that's a good thing. “But it casts a weird twist into their analyses because they were counting on those waterways in their cost/benefit figures. Those will have to be revised,” he says.

Opponents

Delta Farm Press has spoken with say the $12 million appropriation is a setback, but it isn't near the end of the game.

“They're going to have to fight tooth-and-nail for appropriations every year. They need millions and millions of dollars. There are a bunch of years for us to work and re-orient this project before it becomes operational. So this is by no means over. It's a disappointment that Arkansas politicians haven't been able to see the long-term implications of this project. They insist on spending federal money over the objections of many, many of their fellow Arkansans,” says McKenzie.

Edwards insists he's trying to keep all sides informed and involved.

“Every aspect of this project has been subject to public comment and review. So I feel good that this project has had as much scrutiny as it's had. I'm sure that'll continue to be the case,” he says.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com