Leader Blues

Monday, May 07, 2007

TOP STORY >>Project could bring water to farmers

IN SHORT: A dream for 50 years, area farmers could be plumbing the depths of the Arkansas River for irrigation within seven years.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Farmers in Lonoke and neighboring counties could be irrigating with Arkansas River water by 2015 if Assistant Secretary of the Army John Woodley signs off on the $530 million Bayou Meto Basin Irrigation Project, which could happen within the next 30 days, says Gene Sullivan, executive director for the project.

“We’re asking for construction funding starting Oct. 1, 2007,” said Sullivan. “What we’ve requested is $25 million. That would get us started with the road and the channel to the pumping station near Scott, get final designs completed on the first phase and start some work in the wildlife management areas,” Sullivan said.

Of the $530 million price tag, agricultural water supply will cost about $402 million, flood control $40 million and waterfowl habitat $88 million.

Of that, the federal government will pay about 65 percent, with most of the balance coming from a bond issue to be paid off with money the farmers pay for their share of the irrigation water and an assessment of benefits.
“We could build it in seven years, if we get the funding,” he said.

That means that by 2015, six giant pumps just above Lock and Dam 6 near Scott could be sucking 1,750 cubic feet of water a second from the Arkansas River, diverting it through a system of canals, pipes and ditches largely to the benefit of farmers in Lonoke, Jefferson and to a lesser degree, Prairie and Arkansas counties, but also to the benefit of thousands of acres of duck and wildlife habitat.

At that rate, the pumps will move enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every 12 minutes.
It will help irrigate about 300,000 acres, or about 470 square miles of cropland.

A second set of pumps, to be located where the Little Bayou Meto meets the Arkansas River Levee in Jefferson County, will be available for flood and habitat control, able to move 1,000 cubic feet a second back into the river.

A similar project, the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project, has met stiff opposition from sportsmen and environmentalists concerned about its effect on the more pristine White River.

“We formed a legal entity, the Bayou Meto Improvement Project District,” Sullivan said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct a network including 465 miles of pipeline, 107 miles of new canals and tie into 132 miles of existing streams and ditches, moving water to the farms.

The on-farm part includes construction of tail-water recovery ditches to collect runoff from farm fields, including the water farmers use to flood their rice fields.

Water from those ditches would be pumped into large on-farm reservoirs. From the reservoir, the farmers can direct the water, usually through underground pipes, to any of their fields.

When the reservoir needs refilling, they could pump water from their wells or import it from the river.
Without the Bayou Meto project, annual farm receipts could fall an estimated $46 million by 2015, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

This is important not only to the economic well-being of area farmers and nearby towns, but also to larger cities that draw some of their drinking water from the deep, high-quality water in the Sparta aquifer.

In Lonoke County, use of the Sparta increased 700 percent in 10 years, according to the Final Environmental Impact Statement, completed last year.

Pumping Arkansas River water for irrigation will preserve the higher quality Sparta water for municipalities and fish farms.
The shallower alluvial aquifer has been dropping at a faster rate over the past decade, and farmers are pumping water out faster than it can recharge.

“Our water use has been increasing for decades and has been above safe yield for 20 years,” according to Todd Fuggitt, geology supervisor and hydro-geologist for the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission. “We’re mining our aquifers,” he said.

Fuggitt said farmers were pumping the aquifer at a rate 43 percent over the sustainable yield in the state.
“We can achieve sustainable yield by reducing the current (use) by 57 percent,” which he said was doable if the Bayou Meto project is built.

Congress originally authorized the project in the 1950s, Sullivan said, deactivated it in the early 1990s and reauthorized it, subject to review of the economic, environmental and engineering aspects, in 1998.