Leader Blues

Friday, May 01, 2009

TOP STORY > >Source of water worries groups

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The Pulaski County Quorum Court caved in to wealthy developers Tuesday night, endangering the long-term quality of Arkansas’ best and largest source of drinking water, which is certain to decline, according to Lake Maumelle water activists.

“Politics beat science,” according to Barry Haas, a spokesman for Citizens Protecting the Maumelle Watershed.

“This is not good news for the 400,000 people who drink water out of Lake Maumelle,” Haas said. “The only science we have is the Tetra Tech study the CAW ratepayers paid for. That plan has essentially been thrown away by the ordinance,” Haas said. “It leaves out all the import elements like minimum lot sizes, maximum undisturbed area and traditional sewage transport as only a last result.”

The Tetra Tech study, commissioned by the Central Arkansas Water authority, included input from scientists, landowners, developers, hydrologists, local officials and the chamber of commerce among others, and arrived at a consensus agreement that many thought would end the battle between the water authority and the developers.

Lake Maumelle is the primary source of drinking water for parts of central Arkansas, and CAW has agreements to supply water to Jacksonville, Cabot, Sherwood and Gravel Ridge, so both the quality of the water and the cost of the land are important to area customers.

Disregarding important parts of that two-year study of the lake, its geology, topography and permeability, area quorum court members Bob Johnson, Jeff Rollins and Rev. Robert Green were among the majority, approving the plan proposed by County Judge Buddy Villines and County Attorney Karla Burnett.

That plan plainly exasperated attorney Bruce McMath. McMath called it “The Deltic Plan.”

CAW’s current board sent the quorum court a letter stating that with a single exception, it doesn’t believe that chapter eight of the subdivision plan the court was considering “doesn’t protect the lake.”

Why didn’t the CAW board produce a Tetra Tech spokesman to answer the questions of the quorum court Tuesday night?

“The CAW board basically capitulated,” Haas said.

Environmentalists say the plan approved by the quorum court fails in many ways to protect the lake’s water quality from Deltic and other developers, prime among them the failure to require a minimum five-acre-lot size and to allow forced- sewage lines intended to carry waste out of the Lake Maumelle watershed.

In the fall of 2005, the contentious fight between Deltic and CAW appeared over when a judge ruled that CAW could condemn Deltic lands for a public purpose and pay for them.

They underestimated the wealth and political savvy of Deltic Timber, according to McMath, who has represented CAW in court and in negotiations. “They have always thought they would win,” said McMath.

“Counties can set limits on lot size,” he added. “You didn’t ask (the attorney general) the right question.

“We are inching our way to fall just short of protecting the water,” he said, when you substitute engineering control for conservation.

McMath said that when the lake becomes substandard or polluted, as it inevitably would, CAW would have to build a new water treatment plant, which would be extremely expensive for ratepayers—virtually everyone in central Arkansas.

If the sewer system fails, thousands of gallons of sewage would first plunge and later seep into central Arkansas’ primary drinking water source, Haas said.

CAW was struck a blow when its president, Jim Harvey, and its chief operating officer, Bruno Kirsch, both retired within months of each other. Both had advocated tenaciously for protecting Lake Maumelle water quality, McMath said Thursday. “They were fighters.”

Deltic has fought to build high- density middle-class and upper- middle-class homes on the lake at every turn, first trying in the legislature to strip CAW of its authority to exercise the right of eminent domain, then during the two-year study by Tetra Tech, in negotiations, in court and finally, in the quorum court, where all of its previous setbacks were reversed by that body.

McMath said there could be one possible legal challenge left of the ruling. Otherwise, he said, Deltic and the others are free to build with few restraints.

“They will end up polluting the lake,” McMath predicted.

“You have been misled,” said Kate Althoff, a longtime lake activist. “You have to make a decision (based) on false information.”

By a 10 to five vote, the court approved the most contentious of the four ordinances, enacting the subdivision and development code of Pulaski County. That’s the one that was approved in lieu of the plan that came out of the professional study and action by CAW.

Haas said the fight wasn’t over.

In three other ordinances, the court authorized the county judge to enter into an agreement with CAW for the maintenance and continued protection of the Lake Maumelle Watershed.

The court approved an ordinance to recognize and appropriate revenue from Central Arkansas Water into the planning department budget for one new position to do planning, maintenance and operation of the Maumelle watershed.

The final ordinance defined the area to be known as the Lake Maumelle Watershed.