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Grand Prairie aquifer work advances: Opposing camps seek compromises to avert potential disaster

After years of agricultural prosperity, Arkansas' Grand Prairie region - one of the greatest rice-producing areas in the world - has found itself with a depleted aquifer and dwindling options. One option long-touted by the Corps of Engineers, NRCS and other state agencies called for tapping the nearby White River and annually pumping 115 billion gallons of surface water through a series of canals and waterways to farmers' on-farm storage structures. Without such a plan, scientists say, the alluvial aquifer will collapse from overuse by 2015.

Approximately half of the 1,000 farmers in the affected area opposed the $300-plus million plan as too expensive and, in some cases, unnecessary. Those farmers - soon allied with environmentalists, outdoorsmen and municipalities that sit on the White River - gave a rising voice of discontent with the plan. Politicians in Washington, D.C., were listening. Promised federal funding for the project was threatened.

Finally, last April, after months of struggle and contentious debate, opposing sides in the Arkansas White River Irrigation District (WRID) project came together in compromise. Fostered by U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., the agreement called for several things. Among them was the go-ahead for construction of on-farm surface water structures and the promise that water would not be pumped from the White River - at least for the time being.

The agreement also calls for an engineering review of the Corp's plan, says Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission head Randy Young.

"Following the meetings that Congressman Dickey called, one of the things we talked about was the need for everyone with an interest to be at the table. I recommended to (Arkansas) Lt. Gov. Rockefeller - who chairs the Water Resources Task Force - that he appoint a 12-member committee that would be representative of the interests in the WRID project. He agreed and I was asked to chair the new oversight committee and make the appointments," says Young.

Among those Young appointed is Jerry Lee Bogard, an unabashed critic of the WRID project as is. When speaking of the new committee, however, Bogard is dovish.

"We've had a very good working relationship with members of the committee. I feel very confident that over the next few months, we're going to come up with the best possible solution. We're striving to meet the criteria of being environmentally sensitive, economically viable and assuring that the aquifers are going to be around for generations to come," says Bogard.

Other appointees include: the Corps of Engineers' Dennis Kemper, state geologist Bill Bush, WRID's Tommy Hillman, Allen Mueller with U.S. Game and Fish, John Terry with USGS, Robert Hankins with the Arkansas Soil and Water Commission, Little Rock attorney Allen Perkins, El Dorado Chamber of Commerce's Sherrel Johnson, Nancy Delamar with the Nature Conservancy, and Calvin Trice with USDA/NRCS.

At the first meeting, Young says, the group met to review its charge and to provide the committee with background information and the current status of the Grand Prairie area and demonstration project "and to discuss options for how we're going to cooperate with the sponsors, the Corps and NRCS to conduct an engineering review of the surface diversion features of the plan."

What does that entail?

"We're going to meet next on Aug. 29 and at that point hope to have feedback from the members on how to proceed. The options are wide open," says Young.

Getting to this point has taken a suppression of hostilities and egos from both sides, insist several Grand Prairie farmers.

Bogard says bringing the sides together in an earnest endeavor to compromise would have been unthinkable earlier this year. In fact, in late June, on the heels of the fragile agreement, cracks in the accord seemed to surface when a WRID official was quoted in a Stuttgart, Ark., newspaper saying pumping from the White River was still very much an option. A firestorm from area farmers and environmentalists ensued.

Terming the comments "inflammatory," Bogard is still upset.

"The comments didn't necessarily represent what's going on. Despite rumors, there's absolutely no work whatsoever going on in pumping from the White River or canal construction or anything of that nature," says Bogard.

Having his finger on the pulse of opposition farmers, how does Bogard describe their collective mood?

"We want a solution. That's it. It's my view that farmers want a solution to what is a looming, natural resource problem. And this is the first of many. We're keeping an eye on the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) thing with a keen eye. In the future, farmers are going to have to do things differently. Not that we haven't been good stewards, but there's more technology available now. I'm excited by the opportunity."

Bogard says if a project agreeable to both sides is eventually implemented, the federal taxpayer is going to receive a windfall in perpetuity.

"These are the types of solutions that have made America what it is today. If you look at the number of rice acres in the affected counties, if you look at taking an industry like International Paper out of ground water by 92 percent, if you look at what that means to everyone, it's incredible. Using USGS data, just for the folks in Arkansas County over the next seven years in reduced pumping costs - because there's more water availability and less irrigation maintenance costs - it means the taxpayers will get their money back within seven years and will receive benefits forever. That's how tax dollars should be spent. With the proper plan, this just makes sense."

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