May/June 2015 Issue
As levels dwindle in two of Arkansas’ most important underground aquifers, the state is implementing plans to promote conservation while bringing water from distant rivers to high-use agricultural regions.
Photography by Sara Blancett Reeves and Ashlee Nobel
Top photo: Bayou Meto Water Management Project – The project started in 2010 and will ultimately divert water from the Arkansas River for irrigation in Lonoke, Jefferson, Prairie, and Arkansas counties.
Finding enough water for the soybeans, rice, and corn on the Stroh family’s 800-acre farm outside DeWitt is a constant struggle.
Not long after Donnie Stroh’s father purchased the land in 1940, a large on-farm reservoir was created to capture rainwater because the elder Stroh was already worried about the long-term viability of the underground aquifer.
He was right to worry. The Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer — a relatively shallow body of water underneath eastern Arkansas that is the main source of drinking water for small towns and water districts, as well as for the crops on Stroh’s farm and many others across the region — is being used up.
Stroh, who is in his 80s, said six wells on the farm his father purchased 75 years ago have dried up. Four others are currently pumping but would be useless without water from four reservoirs built to capture rainwater and recycle irrigation runoff. Without the reservoirs, there wouldn’t be enough water to keep the farm going, he said.
“It’s a constant concern,” said Stroh, adding that the Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project — now under construction to irrigate the region with water from the White River — will be a saving grace for farmers. “Without water diversion coming across the Grand Prairie, it’s just a matter of time until we won’t be able to produce anything,” he said.
The irrigation project, with an estimated cost of more than $500 million, has been under construction for more than 10 years. First proposed in the 1950s, it involves construction of a vast system of irrigation canals and pipes to bring more than 100 billion gallons of water annually from the White River at DeValls Bluff to about 250,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Arkansas, Lonoke, Monroe, and Prairie counties.
Dennis Carman, the project’s chief engineer, said it’s difficult to predict when the entire project will be complete because of the uncertainties of depending on federal funding. Some farmers near Hazen and possibly Carlisle could begin receiving irrigated water in 2018.
Completion of that project, along with the on-going Bayou Meto Water Management Project — which started in 2010 and will ultimately divert water from the Arkansas River for irrigation in Lonoke, Jefferson, Prairie, and Arkansas counties — are two of the recommendations in the official Arkansas Water Plan that was recently released by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC). The water plan predicts that the Alluvial Aquifer will run dry by 2050 because of overuse if water conservation programs are not implemented across eastern Arkansas and if more surface water isn’t used for irrigation.
The Arkansas Water Plan, a $4 million update of the original 1990 plan, also recommends on-farm water conservation throughout eastern Arkansas to capture rainwater and irrigation runoff, and it urges use of metered wells for more accurate monitoring of aquifer use by farmers. The plan also includes a nutrient-management proposal that would require farmers who use only poultry litter as fertilizer to file plans with the state.
The water plan has been presented to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office, and attorneys for the ANRC will soon begin drafting a set of rules to implement the recommendations. Those rules and recommendations will be presented to the Arkansas General Assembly for consideration in 2017.
While water experts agree it has taken some time to get all the policies and recommendations ready for consideration by the Legislature, many of the farmers in the region already have voluntarily dug on-farm reservoirs. Some industries, cities, and counties have developed programs to reduce consumption from the aquifer, such as:
- In Union County, a project to divert water from the Ouachita River to industries that previously used the aquifer has been completed.
- The Points Remove Wetlands Reclamation and Irrigation District, completed in 2006, provides irrigation water to about 14,000 acres of cropland in Pope and Conway counties and winter water to the 6,000-acre Ed Gordon Wildlife Management Area.
- The Plum Bayou District, completed in 1993, serves about 14,200 irrigated acres of land in Lonoke and Pulaski counties.
“We are starting to see the ones that have been finished return benefits that are what you would expect from these projects, and I think as more citizens see the truly great benefits from them, we will have better buy in,” said Corbet Lamkin, who served on the ANRC for 19 years before stepping down as chairman at the end of 2014.
ANRC Executive Director Randy Young said it took years to get both the Grand Prairie and Bayou Meto projects started because funding had to be lined up — 65 percent federal and 35 percent state and local — and the farmers who will have to pay for the water had to be won over. Lawsuits by environmental groups also delayed construction.
Water, Water Everywhere
Every day, more than 70 billion gallons of the water flows out of Arkansas as rivers and streams cross the state’s borders, and the average annual rainfall in the state, about 50 inches a year, equals about 1.5 times the water in 13,400-acre Lake DeGray.
While surface water is abundant, the Alluvial being used for crops and by small towns and rural water systems is not.
The water plan, which was funded by the Legislature in 2012 and drafted after research and hundreds of community meetings across the state, found that the aquifer’s water level is declining one foot per year, and within just 35 years it will run dry unless drastic changes are made. The Alluvial, said Todd Fugitt, geology supervisor for the ANRC, has a clay cap of 20 to 60 feet, and its depth ranges from 150 to 180 feet. Another 500 feet below that is the Sparta Sands Aquifer.
“It’s not sustainable … this really is a dangerous trend we are on,” Fugitt said about the annual depletion of the Alluvial.
The water plan projects the demand for water in Arkansas will rise about 14 percent to about 12.5 billion gallons per day in 2050. “Overall, about 71 percent
of statewide water demand is supplied from groundwater sources and that is assumed for planning forecasts to remain the same through the 40 year planning horizon,” according to the plan. “Reduction of groundwater use depends on successful implementation of conservation, surface water use, and delivery of surface water. Water demand for crop irrigation is about 80 percent of the total statewide water demand, primarily in the east Arkansas region.”
The water plan, Young said, “sets the strategy and the policy needed for the direction the state and its people need to take to make sure that future water needs can be met in an environmentally safe manner. Clearly, in east Arkansas the groundwater depletion is a big issue.”
Depletion of the Aquifer
Rice farming began in the Delta region of Arkansas around 1900 and the source of water for irrigation was the shallow Alluvial Aquifer, which can be found by drilling 20 feet to 60 feet below the surface. Rain, streams, and rivers naturally recharge the aquifer.
The Sparta Sands Aquifer is a much deeper system that covers northern Louisiana, south Arkansas, and runs up under the Delta. It’s used by industry in south Arkansas — especially the paper mills because of its high-quality water — and by most cities in the region for drinking water.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, by 1915 the amount of water that farmers were drawing from the Alluvial already exceeded the aquifer’s recharge rate. Users simply drilled deeper to get to the water.
In 1985, the state began requiring users of the Alluvial to report their use annually. In 2001, a metering program was required for users of the Sparta. Users of the Alluvial, however, still do not have a metering program, though farmers who have wells that pump more than 50,000 gallons of water per day from the aquifer must report annually.
The water plan would allow farmers to volunteer to have meters installed on their wells so their water usage can be monitored, Fugitt said. The state would cover the $2,000 cost of installing the meters, with a goal of installing them on about 350 wells.
“This would be a benefit to farmers as far as their practices,” Fugitt said. “It’s our understanding [that] if you know how much water you are using, it’s going to benefit you economically because you can conserve better.”
Currently, farmers do not have to seek a permit to drill new water wells on their properties. The licensed contractor who does the drilling, however, must turn in a construction report on the project. Private wells for domestic use are currently exempt from having to report how much they used.
Carman, who has been chief engineer of the Grand Prairie project since 2007, said more than 300 on-farm reservoirs and irrigation water recovery systems have been built in the Grand Prairie and 200 or more are expected to be constructed. A $26 million pump station is currently under construction at DeValls Bluff, and 1.5 miles of pipe from the pump station to a planned 100-acre reservoir is in place.
The pump station at Scott, which will pull Arkansas River water for the Bayou Meto project, has been completed, and Project Director Gene Sullivan said the first farmers could begin receiving water in 2018. Eventually, more than 300,000 acres of farmland, including 20,000 acres of fish farms, will be served.
“I’m talking about a water distribution system, protecting the groundwater, but then we also have the flood control part of it and we also have the water fowl habitat,” he said.
Already Showing Success
The aquifer depletion issue didn’t become dire until the mid-1990s when two regions of the state were declared critical groundwater areas — Union County and six others that relied on the Sparta for municipal as well as industrial water, and the Grand Prairie counties of Arkansas, Prairie, and Jefferson, along with parts of Lonoke, Pulaski, and White, which rely on the shallower Alluvial.
In El Dorado, a monitoring well operated by the U.S. Geological Survey detected a 240-foot drop in the water table under Union County between 1942 and 1998. The U.S. Geological Survey and ANRC (then called the Soil and Water Conservation Commission) issued a report saying that if Union County did not control its rate of consumption, the Sparta would suffer irreparable damage in five years or less. The report recommended cutting consumption from the Sparta by 71 percent, or 14 million gallons per day, to stabilize and conserve it.
Several communities moved quickly in response to the dire warning.
The $65 million Ouachita River Alternative Water Supply Project was completed in 2005, and it allowed three of the larger Union County industrial plants, previously heavy users of the Sparta, to use Ouachita River water for cooling and steam needs.
“What a success story,” said Fugitt. “We told them they had to reduce by 72 percent, and instead of fighting the state they jumped right on board and said. ‘We will do whatever we have to.’”
The project, Fugitt said, was successful because civic and business leaders, along with industry and state agencies, worked together — and because voters were willing to help pay the cost.
In 1999, water users in Union County began paying a 24-cent per 1,000-gallon conservation fee. In 2002, Union County voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to help pay for a pump station, clarification plant, more than 20 miles of piping, and a storage tank. The tax ended on Jan. 1, 2006.
“The aquifer has risen over 50 feet, and this is not being seen anywhere in the world,” Fugitt said. “This is a template of success for groundwater resources.”
Joining in the water conservation effort, some of the golf courses in Union County began watering their fairways and greens using “gray water” — treated, non-potable water from their septic systems — rather than municipal water, which still came from the Sparta, Fugitt said.
“That alone saved Arkansas 1 million gallons of water a day in water from the Sparta Aquifer,” he said.
Union County was not alone in its efforts to conserve the Sparta. In Columbia County, a 1 percent sales tax was approved in the mid-1980s to build the 3,000-acre Lake Columbia, which has become the county’s water supply.
Several industries also have begun water conservation initiatives, Young said, including Evergreen Packaging Inc., which uses water from the Sparta at its plant in Pine Bluff.
Stroh said he is optimistic that the on-farm conservation efforts urged in the water plan, as well as the irrigation projects, will ultimately make it a little easier for farmers to raise their crops.
“We are down to when we start a well we’re not even sure if there is enough water down there to run the whole season,” he said. “We’ve got just about all the water out that we can.”
Rob Moritz also reported on the mutli-billion dollar improvements needed in Arkansas’ water and sewer systems. Read the article here.