Water bill runs into solid wall in House

BY JOHN HOFHEIMER
and JOAN MCCOY

Leader staff writers

___Deltic Timber, the powerful developer of west Little Rock's Chenal properties, appears stymied for now in its efforts to build 250 high-end lake view homes on Lake Maumelle, the source of most area drinking water. Standing in the way are Central Arkansas Water (CAW) and the House committee on City, County and Local Affairs.
___ Deltic's bill to strip CAW of its authority to regulate alterations in the watershed and to condemn land by eminent domain recently breezed through the Senate with Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, and Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy among the 11 who voted against it. It was previously–and incorrectly–reported that Capps didn't vote. "That's not true," he said Tuesday afternoon.
___ "I was strongly against it." The water utility fears that lawn chemicals, construction runoff and other pollutants could threaten the reservoir, which provides much of central Arkansas' drinking water. Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, committee chairman, said he'd heard from both proponents and opponents of the measure.
___ He, like other area legislators, is inclined toward preserving the watershed. "The bill has real troubles," Bond said. "It's not back up on the agenda," he added. "There's no way to force the bill to be heard." The bill has been passed over three times in committee and, according to the rules, designated "deferred." If it is not reintroduced, it will die when the legislature adjourns, he said. "I'm inclined to protect the watershed," said Bond.
___ "A lot of people want it put to bed immediately. My job is to follow the rules that govern when a bill comes before the committee. Bond said he was bound by the rules, which would allow SB230 to be reintroduced in his committee only if the sponsor, Rep. Jodie Mahoney, D-El Dorado, gave notice 48 hours before a committee meeting. Deltic Timber is headquartered in El Dorado. Deltic representatives and lobbyist Joe Bell "are continuing to work on the bill and on getting the votes," said Bond. "Opponents need to stay on top of it."
___ Craig Douglass, Deltic spokesman, disagreed that the bill is stalled in committee. "It will remain on the agenda," he said Tuesday. "We're visiting with all 100 members of the House, and that takes time." He said Deltic was continuing to encourage Central Arkansas Water "to visit with us on the stewardship agreement we proposed two weeks ago today. It's in their hands."
___ He said no negotiations with CAW were currently planned. The 720 acres in question are near CAW's two intake structures located near the dam on the east end of the lake, according to Jim Harvey, CEO of Central Arkansas Water. Harvey said both sides were lobbying hard, but "what we're hearing is (the representatives) are getting many, many phone calls, nearly all in opposition to the bill."
___ Among those opposed to the bill are the Pulaski County Quorum Court, the Jacksonville Water Commission, Audubon Arkansas, Sierra Club, Pulaski County League of Women Voters, Arkansas Municipal League, Arkansas Association of County Judges, Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods, the mayors of Jacksonville, Sherwood, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Cabot and six other towns, and other utilities around the state, as well as 1,762 people who have signed an on-line petition, according to information provided by CAW's Marie Crawford. Ratepayers in Central Arkan-sas–including Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Sher-wood, Gravel Ridge and Cabot–paid for creation of that reservoir, but Deltic Timber owns much of the land surrounding it.
___ Central Arkansas Water, like governments and other utilities, has the power of condemnation through eminent domain, and informed Deltic several years ago that it would not allow construction near its water intake structure. The Pulaski County Quorum Court Tuesday night joined various mayors, city councils and the Jacksonville Chamber of Com-merce in opposing SB230–the bill that targets only CAW's right of eminent domain.
___ The bill breezed through the senate, based on its title "An Act to be Known as the Water Quality Protection Act of 2005", that fact that it was amended to affect only Central Arkansas Water and, according to some accounts, rural senators paying back Pulaski County lawmakers, including Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, for supporting school consolidation last session. It has shown no movement since being passed on to the house committee Feb. 8. Central Arkansas Water and Deltic have cooperated and partnered on several projects in the past, but Deltic was not content to write off the sale of 250 high-value lots.
___ That's why the $42 million a year company pushed a bill easily through the state Senate pretty much stripping CAW of the power of eminent domain. That's when the water company got its back up, sending fact sheets to news media and legislators throughout the state. Deltic's bill would allow land-owners to make "alterations"–that is, "engage in activity or changes the quantity or quality of surface water run-off into a water of the state, including, but not limited to logging, applying herbicides, pesticides or phosphate fertilizer, draining, dumping, dredging, damning (sic), discharging, excavating, filling or grading, or the erection, reconstruction or substantial expansion of any buildings or structures; the driving of pilings, construction or paving of roads and other land surface disturbance activities." SB230 would make the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission and its executive director the ruling authority in consolidated water authority land-use matters.
___ Steve Morgan, who represents CAW on the board of the Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance, an organization of cities and water associations in central Arkansas that have banded together to find water for the future, says no one yet knows what impact SB 230 would have on MAWA. Since the bill virtually kills CAW's authority to condemn property, Morgan said it could have a far-reaching effect on CAW's ability to run cross-country water lines.
___ In the past, the utility has been able to purchase 98 percent of the land needed for waterline rights-of-way, Morgan said. But the other 2 percent has had to be condemned. It is not clear what would happen to that ability to obtain land to lay waterline if the bill passes, he said.
___ That could be a problem for cities and water associations not included in the bill because many of them will likely be in partnership with CAW in laying cross-country lines, he said.
___ "We just don't know the full ramifications of what this bill could do," he said, adding that he is thankful that opposition from cities, water associations and environmental groups has it stalled in committee for the present.

 

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