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Arkansas water plan: Update on phase one

Arkansas Department of Agriculture, project partners seek stakeholder feedback.

Whitney Haigwood, Staff Writer

June 10, 2024

6 Min Read
View from water pumping station overlooking the Arkansas River.
Arkansas looks to update the state water plan in 2024, and stakeholder feedback is essential to plan development. (Pictured, a view from the Marion Berry Pump Station in Scott, Ark., as part of the Bayou Meto Water Management Project.)Whitney Haigwood

At a Glance

  • Arkansas is updating its state water plan in 2024, 10 years after the last update.
  • For the first time ever, the Arkansas water plan will include a flood plan, addressing increased flooding in recent years.
  • The Arkansas Department of Agriculture continues to seek stakeholder input in finalizing phase one by late August 2024.

Originally established in 1939, the Arkansas Water Plan (AWP) has been updated throughout the years – in 1975 and again in 1990 – with the most current version developed in 2014. Now in 2024, the Natural State is updating its water plan and stakeholder feedback is encouraged to include the needs of all Arkansans. 

The project began when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Executive Order 23-27 on Aug. 21, 2023. The AWP update is divided into two phases, with phase one well underway to meet the 365-day completion deadline from the date of the executive order. 

Jay Whisker serves as Engineering Supervisor for Water Planning at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Division and has taken much of the lead in updating the AWP.  

Whisker shared phase one progress and details on the 2024 AWP development in a presentation to the board of directors of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas on May 14 in Marianna. 

Roadmap for the Arkansas Water Plan 

Partners in the updated 2024 AWP include the Arkansas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Whisker noted that a private consulting firm, Michael Baker International, who recently partnered with Olsson-FTN Associates, was also hired to assist in the development. 

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The roadmap to fully finalize the AWP update will likely take an additional two years after the completion of phase one, Whisker said. “Under Gov. Sanders’ executive order, we have a year to get phase one of the water plan completed.  

“The biggest thing we want is stakeholder input in updating the 2014 version that was done very well, developed with over 250 meetings held statewide to seek input in the development.” Now, 10 years later, Whisker emphasized that stakeholder feedback is essential to phase one of the AWP update. 

Project partners began with a formal review of the 2014 water plan. This review process was to “identify gaps and recommend additional goals to ensure that the state’s water plan is robust and responsive to the evolving environment and socio-economic challenges,” according to the Department’s website

From there, the input process started with public meetings in Little Rock and Fayetteville in March of 2024.  Then, five public meetings were held the second week of May across the state, with locations including Jonesboro, Fort Smith, Magnolia, Stuttgart, and Little Rock. Information gathered from attendees was key in identifying the breadth of water needs across the Natural State. 

Highlights from public meetings 

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At the Ag Council meeting, Whisker provided an overview of the 2014 AWP and explained that the plan is divided into seven parts. Each of those was discussed during the public meetings, including: demands, science and technology, infrastructure, ecological protection, water management, water administration, and education. 

Demand encompasses things like drinking water requirements, reliability of agricultural and industrial water needs, in addition to the reliability of water quality and quantity to support navigation, recreation, and tourism. 

Man at podium speaking to meeting attendees.

“I thought demand was the most interesting,” Whisker said. “The demand of water depends on where you are in the state. People want different things, so as a state you have to take all of that into consideration and try to make it fair for all.” 

Water management addresses surface water and groundwater needs to determine how we make the best use of those. Whisker said, “Water management was important in the 2014 water plan, and it will be in the 2024 update as well.” 

“Water is important. We are a water rich state, which is nice, especially compared to states out in the West who are not so fortunate; but I do not know that the general public understands that,” he said of water education in Arkansas. 

Whisker reported on the meeting in Stuttgart geared toward agricultural water supply, with 37 in attendance. Discussion topics included surface water use from the White and Arkansas rivers, the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project, and the Bayou Meto Water Management Project. 

Then in Northwest Arkansas, attendees brought up concerns around the population increase and drinking water supply. 

Of all the topics, Whisker said the biggest was infrastructure – specifically aging infrastructure. The topic was discussed at all five public meetings, with needs to address existing infrastructure for water, wastewater, and flood control. 

New flood plan to be included 

Whisker noted that since 1939, each update of the state’s water plan has come on the heels of a water event, shaping the next AWP. The 2024 AWP will include a flood plan – something Arkansas has never had before. 

“In 2014, we came off two or three years of drought, so that water plan addresses more drought than flooding.” Fast-forward to 2024, and Whisker assured this update will address flooding more than drought, due to increased flooding in Arkansas over the past three to five years. 

“Flood planning is something new, since 2019 when the flood came down the Arkansas river, and people started discussing the importance of a plan,” Whisker said. 

Preliminary goals of the flood plan include statewide risk assessment, mitigation, flood reduction, preparedness, a response to action plan, funding, and compliance. 

“Levees are so important in the flood plan,” Whisker said, noting that the Department has already initiated a project with USACE to identify all levees in the state of Arkansas. 

“There are different types of levees in the state like FEMA accredited, USACE certified, private levees, and those that are owned and managed by local levee districts. A lot of people do not know who is responsible for them or who keeps them funded,” he explained. “Some levees may have assessments that have not changed since they were established in the 1950s.” 

Involvement and input encouraged 

Arkansans are encouraged to participate in the development of the 2024 AWP. While public meetings have closed for now, Whisker said he is going to keep talking about it as the deadline for phase one closes in. 

If you missed the public meetings in May, you still have an opportunity to give your feedback by reaching out directly to Whisker. “Your participation will be helpful to us,” Whisker said. “We want to gather everyone’s input so it can be considered for the water plan.” 

Additional public meetings and stakeholder engagements will occur as part of phase two of the water plan update.  More information will be released once the second phase starts later this year.  

Furthermore, the Agricultural Council of Arkansas intends to be deeply involved in helping the State of Arkansas develop this water and flood plan. Executive Vice President Andrew Grobmyer said, “Water will always be an issue of interest for our organization. Since the 2014 plan, we have worked with the General Assembly and Department of Agriculture to implement new laws to enhance the Groundwater Development and Conservation Act tax credits, which plays a key role in helping farmers and landowners conserve groundwater through land improvements. 

“These programs and similarly focused state investments and activities are working. We want to see that this new water plan helps our state keep its foot on the gas in terms of maintaining and advancing good policies that work for farmers and rural communities in addressing the wide array of water related needs and challenges that exist.” 

For more information, you access a complete list of resources through the Arkansas Water Plan webpage powered by Arkansas Department of Agriculture. There is also a link to sign up for email alerts on the Arkansas water plan.  

For direct inquiries or to provide feedback, email Whisker at [email protected].

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