Leader Blues

Friday, August 14, 2009

TOP STORY >> Project won’t get stimulus funding

Leader staff writer

The Lonoke-White Water Project that was believed to be eligible for stimulus money because it was supposedly “shovel ready” has hit a snag.

It turns out the project is not “shovel ready” after all, which surprised even the state agency that hopes to distribute the money.

A two-page letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent to the Arkansas Natural Resource Commission on July 23 explained that a public health threat must be present for the project to receive money, according to the requirements for the state’s revolving drinking water fund.

As it stands, the Lonoke-White project is considered long-term state water planning.

The ANRC is the agency that distributes federal money and the DWSRF is the fund through which the stimulus money was to be funneled.

But Clint McGue, attorney for the project, told members during a special meeting this week that the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission wants to help.

“Mark (Bennett) and Dave (Fenter) went to bat for Lonoke-White,” McGue said. “This is not a problem for Natural Resources.

It’s a problem for EPA.”

Bennett and Fenter are with the ANRC which earlier this year wanted all the project members to sign contracts by Sept. 1 so they could meet a Feb. 17 deadline for having the project ready to start.

But McGue said the problems with EPA have voided the ANRC-imposed September deadline. Now, the goal is to get the project ready as fast as possible, but no new deadline has been set.

Woody Bryant, who was named project manager the day before the bad news came, told members that ANRC had made suggestions to overcome the problem.

“It’s not stopping the project; it’s just another hurdle we have to go over,” Bryant said. “The project is still on go. (ANRC) has told EPA it’s still on go. We’ve just got to find the best solution.”

He said that solution could be as simple as Lonoke White Public Water Authority finding a minimum of 25 water customers to claim as its own along with securing a permit to operate a water system from the state Health Department.

By the time the project members met at noon Wednesday, Bryant already had two groups of customers in mind: the 77 Bayou Two customers that are now with Grand Prairie but getting their water from Jacksonville and the 300 or so that are on the municipal water system in McRae.

Other possible solutions were for each member to get its own loan or for the largest members to take on the responsibility for the loans.

McGue said flatly that those were not viable options. Bryant said after the meeting that the project is structured to ensure equity for all members and no one wants to change that.

The board members voted unanimously at the end to allow the executive committee made up of Ward Mayor Art Brooke and Terry House, who runs the Grand Prairie / Bayou Two Water System, to meet Monday with ANRC to work out the most viable solution.

Executive committee advisers Bryant, McGue, engineer Tommy Bond and Howard Williams from the water commission in Vilonia are also supposed to be part of the discussion.

The Lonoke-White Water Project has been in development for 15 years. It has been through a lawsuit that took control away from Community Water Systems on Greers Ferry Lake which started the project and intended to retain ownership while the project members paid for the easements, pipeline, intake structure at Cove Creek and treatment plant.

Members have come and gone. Beebe, the original member that put the White in Lonoke White, left years ago because the city wells met their needs.

Cabot pulled out in favor of getting water from Central Arkansas Water, but is now a member paying for the right to take water from the lake.

In the past few months, Cabot officials have waffled about participation because of the cost.

In July, the project engineer came to the regular meeting with new cost estimates for the project that could allow it to move ahead without Cabot, which is not willing to participate at a level that would require raising its customers’ rates.

Instead of $65 million, Bond said the project could be completed for $45 million if a traditional sand filter treatment plant was build instead of one using membrane technology.

Bill Cypert, secretary for Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission, said this week that Cabot does support the project. And Wednesday, he made the motion to go to ANRC with proposals to get around the EPA’s objections.

There is a possibility that Beebe could rejoin the project. That city’s wells are still more than adequate but officials say they know they must eventually change to surface water.

McRae, about three miles from Beebe and now the second White County member, needs water now.

Mayor Bob Sullivan, who attended the special Wednesday meeting, said he’s having trouble with the city well and the $65,000 line that now connects the McRae system to Higginson is not large enough to supply all the water the city needs.

Sullivan gave permission for the executive committee to use McRae’s water customers to secure funding if need be.

Sullivan said he hadn’t discussed the matter with his city council, but he didn’t foresee a problem because McRae really needs the Lonoke-White Project to succeed.

Vilonia, Jacksonville, Lonoke, Ward and Austin also are project members.