Agriculture Magazine May/June 2015

Agribusiness: Water Wisdom – Save Now or Limit Later

Arkansas isn’t running out of water. But it’s using it faster than it can be replenished, and a look around the country shows what can happen when the imbalance becomes critical.

California, for the first time in its history, is restricting water use statewide. In Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority has had to deny water to rice growers three years in a row. Upper and Lower Missouri Basin states have fought over releases from the main stem reservoirs above Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River.

And here, according to the staff of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC), we are using 11 billion gallons of water per day, 80 percent of which goes toward crop irrigation; that figure is expected to increase by 13 percent over the next 35 years. Even now, Arkansas is believed to be using 50 percent more groundwater than is sustainable.
In 1975, the state adopted its first Arkansas Water Plan, drafted by the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission, the predecessor agency to the ANRC. It was updated in 1990, and now the 2014 update to the Arkansas Water Plan has been compiled. The commission’s point man for the project, ANRC Water Resources Division Manager Edward Swaim, says the agency needs Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s permission to proceed. After that, “We would issue public notice, have some public meetings around the state … there’ll be a comment period. Then, we would bring that back to the commission to see if they would want to modify the draft of the rules.”

Finally, the plan would be reviewed by the Arkansas General Assembly or its Legislative Council before going into effect.

The ANRC began holding public meetings in 2012, open to “anybody who has an interest in water,” said Swaim. “We wanted to make sure that they can be involved and be informed through the process.” He said stakeholder participation was driven by concern that the plan would go in a direction averse to their interests, possibly toward restrictions on groundwater use. But Swaim says that’s not in the mission of the water plan, and “what we want to do is encourage people to broaden their sources of water” in order to achieve long-term sustainability of supply.

The same stakeholders, he said, were concerned that the ANRC’s data on groundwater depletion was exaggerated. But the consensus seems to be that the plan is workable. It seeks additional incentives for water users to adopt conservation measures; this may require legislative action in the form of tax credits. These voluntary measures, however, are only expected to reduce the use gap by 12 to 22 percent. The bigger part of the solution, the ANRC said, is making use of the water that passes through the state on its way to the Mississippi River. More than 7.5 million gallons of water that is not legally regulated and is not earmarked for current or future uses flows along Arkansas’ waterways every day. By substituting surface water for groundwater, the agency said pressure on the declining water table can be eased.

In order to ensure their figures are accurate, the ANRC wants farmers to voluntarily agree to install meters on their wells. There has been some resistance to that idea, but Evan Teague, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for Arkansas Farm Bureau, said that at a stakeholder meeting in Stuttgart, “I heard a lot of [rice farmers] speak positively about volunteering their farms for metering to improve data.” Teague said while Arkansas water reporting is the best among comparable states, “you can always do better.”

Swaim says interest in surface water diversion projects grew in the wake of the 1980s drought. Smaller projects were followed by the much-larger Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project and the Bayou Meto Water Management Project but, Swaim said, “There’s not a pipeline of new projects out there.” He sees a combination of small and large projects, sparked by community leaders, as the solution.

The Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project had to fight through many years of local opposition, but environmental interests seem to be on board with the new plan. Anna Leeks of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel said they’re happy with both the ANRC’s level of stakeholder engagement and the substance of the plan.

“We feel that they’ve gotten it to a good point,” she said. “They have been using science to create the plan.” Will it work? “I think it is going to take a lot of work other than just the water plan; the state’s going to have to come together to protect the great resource that we have,” Leeks said.

The Farm Bureau’s Teague said farmers are already doing so with zero-graded fields, precision application of input, and variable-rate irrigation systems. There’s both a carrot, in the form of reduced costs, but also the stick of potential water use restrictions, although he doesn’t see water restrictions in the near term.

But, Teague added, “I think that’s always in the back of folks’ minds.”

Leave a Comment