When the Senate Appropriations Committee wrapped up work recently, the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project had been allotted $16.3 million. Although far short of the $35 million requested, proponents of the $300-million project (aimed to tap the White River to provide much-needed water to about 1,000 farmers in east Arkansas) breathed a sigh of relief. Not long before, the House had denied the project any funds and President Bush's budget requested no money for the controversial project.

Why is the project so controversial? Because the project area is between two competing entities that both desire a finite amount of water flowing down the White River. On one side are farmers on the Grand Prairie (a region incredibly conducive to growing rice) who have pumped the alluvial aquifer sitting beneath it to the point of collapse. Scientists say the taps will run dry by 2015 if action isn't taken soon.

On the other side are environmentalists, sportsmen and municipalities situated along the White River. Their contention is that the pumping plan to service farmers' crop needs threatens the nearby White River refuge, a vast swath of old-growth timber. Assurances to the contrary, opponents believe any pumping of the White River would not only be devastating to the environment, but is also wholly unnecessary.

How much money the project gets will be determined this fall when Congress holds joint sessions to hammer out appropriations. Right now, though, project proponents are happy and relieved with the Senate results.

One of the people happiest with the funding turnaround is John Edwards, the new White River Irrigation District (WRID) executive director. Having taken the job on July 1, Edwards — who is set to oversee the project from his new position — admits he'd have had a much tougher time if funding was refused right off the bat.

“Right now, we're certainly pleased, and we're trying to continue to educate anyone interested on the project's merits,” says Edwards.

By the nature of the appropriations process, the many project opponents say they knew the odds of stopping funding were tougher in the Senate than in the House — especially since Arkansas has no members on either appropriations committee.

“Two out of 100 is much better odds for the proponents — it's much harder to keep them from getting some money. That's especially true if both senators are on the same page with an issue, as is the case here.

“It'll be interesting to see what comes out of the joint sessions. That's where all the ends have to meet. So the project could come up with nothing, $35 million or somewhere in between. Arkansas has no voices in that committee room except for whatever chits and favors are being traded and brought in,” says Don McKenzie, head of Arkansas' Wildlife Management Institute.

Even if proponents had received all the money they were after, they're still years away from pumping the White River. But any money they are able to get and spend means there's “sunk” construction costs. And, as has been proven repeatedly in like projects across the nation, when there are sunk costs it becomes much more difficult to back away from a disastrous project in later years.

That's why many observers say that as soon as the first concrete truck dumps a load at the proposed pumping station site at Devall's Bluff, the project is essentially a done deal. Politicians view huge projects as things that must be completed once begun. If the project is halted even a little ways in, they have to face the specter of wasted money.

Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln said as much in a guest editorial she recently wrote for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. In this fiscal year alone, she wrote, “we've spent $19 million in federal money, $12 million in state money and about $12 million invested by hundreds of individual landowners in the Grand Prairie region with the expectation that the project would be completed. Let's not allow those millions of dollars already invested to be wasted.”

Opponents have latched on to this viewpoint as an anchoring complaint. In light of the many boondoggles across the country, Edwards says, such concerns are legitimate and have been taken into consideration.

“That's a fair question. This project has been in the works for years — as far back as the 1950s. Project opponents have pointed out that farmers in the Grand Prairie have known for years that the aquifer was being depleted, and if something wasn't done, the current problems would come about. That still didn't stop farmers from pumping.

“But the facts show that this project will be a fair one that benefits the state. I think with the scrutiny placed on all appropriations funding now — which I think is healthy — projects that aren't well-thought out are less likely to get through. Our project has had much scrutiny and the opponents should be commended for making sure all the components are validated,” says Edwards.

Even if no money were handed down from Congress this fall, the project wouldn't die. Theoretically, it could lie dormant for years and then reemerge, say both sides.

“A zero would only buy us a year of time to try and redirect the project. The project will still be authorized. All the planning and foundational work is on the table just waiting for the green light. And that's likely to happen unless we can get the project de-authorized at some point. But a de-authorization debate isn't even on the radar screen right now. We've first got to demonstrate that there's enough opposition within the state to stop the appropriations,” says McKenzie.

McKenzie and colleagues recently released an alternative plan to that being pushed by, among others, the WRID and the Corps of Engineers. McKenzie's proposal was recently given a boost when the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a letter backing the need to study it. In part, the letter says the alternative plan needs to be considered because the Corps' plan “does not have a formal mechanism for regulating or protecting the aquifer after construction, it will meet only approximately 87.6 percent of the average annual water demand, and it would provide enough water to meet demand during only 57 percent of the project life.”

Edwards says the letter has reached him and it's still under review. “I don't know if that letter supersedes what the FWS said earlier when they supported our project. I'd like to talk to FWS about that letter before I comment further.”

Edwards also says he's trying to ratchet down the bad feelings and poor relations that have characterized the debate. He's also willing to make some concrete proposals to bring everyone together.

“One of the big opponents of this project is an attorney from Clarendon named David Carruth. He's a friend of mine. When I was first looking at this job, he mentioned a proposal drawn up by two Little Rock attorneys that are avid sportsmen. They've spent a lot of time drawing this agreement up and it got my attention.”

Edwards says the agreement would provide additional assurances and protections against too much water being pumped from the White River. If implemented, the agreement would be the first of its kind in the nation. It would allow that if the WRID didn't operate the pumping station in accordance with agreed upon limits, then other parties to the agreement would be able to sue the district.

“I've done some research into this and I hope the WRID will look at this and execute it,” says Edwards.

Pushing the alternative plan, McKenzie admits the odds are still against it, “but over the last few months we've stimulated argument and raised questions that Arkansans are now looking at. There's public debate now where there once was none. At this point, though, I wouldn't bet on us stopping the project. However, I now think the odds against us are much shorter.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com