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Debate continues on keys agreement

An agreement — Keys to the Pump — that would provide additional assurances and protections against too much water being pumped from the White River is still being debated amongst agencies and entities involved with the Grand Prairie Demonstration Project. If implemented, the agreement would be the first of its kind in the nation and would allow signatories to sue the White River Irrigation District (WRID) if it doesn't operate the proposed pumping station in accordance with agreed upon limits.

“This agreement — which is a clean, easily readable document — primarily allows signatories to take the WRID to court if we violate the contract by taking more water (from the White River) than has been set by the environmental impact statement and minimum flow standards. If the district pumps water below a certain flow level, another party can take the district to court and have an injunction against having any more water removed from the river,” says John Edwards, WRID executive director.

Edwards says what makes the document unique is the WRID weren't the ones who drafted it. Two Little Rock “environmental” attorneys wrote it. In August, the WRID board approved signing the document.

“Today, we're letting people know more about this agreement. In early September, we had a meeting with state and federal entities about this. At that meeting were (representatives of) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, NRCS, Arkansas Game and Fish and a couple more (agencies),” says Edwards.

So far, no other agency or organization has signed on. Edwards says there's no time limit for signing the agreement.

A common accusation is that the WRID is pushing this agreement as a means to secure project funding. That simply isn't true, says Edwards.

“By the time I took the agreement to the WRID board, the House and Senate had already acted on our funding bills. This agreement is simply putting our money where our mouth is. Unfortunately, I think some have turned this into something it's not. Signing this doesn't mean you support the project. Language to that effect can even be added to the agreement.”

What the agreement spells out clearly is jurisdiction. Everyone knows what his or her rights and duties are. Signatories can go straight to court without addressing whom they need to take legal action against.

“Everyone's role is there in straightforward language. The district can't use legal tactics to challenge a signatory's right to sue. If you're signed on, you can sue without any question,” says Edwards.

The only reason the WRID resurrected the agreement (which has been floating around for years) when it did was for political and appropriations purposes, says Don McKenzie, head of Arkansas' Wildlife Management Institute.

“They wanted to create a perception that they'd taken care of the conservation side of this and therefore could have the money. The agreement, in concept, isn't bad. There are details that are bad, but the concept is good. My organization's trouble is the timing, intent and perception that endorsing it would bring,” says McKenzie.

e-mail: [email protected].

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