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Conference covers hypoxia, fracking, water plan

Drought of 2012 meant less runoff and shrunken hypoxic zone. Education to help manage water for homeowners during drought. Arkansas Water Plan being updated, public meetings set. 

An update of the state water plan, legal issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- for natural gas and a big picture look at curtailing hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, were among the issues presented at “Water; The Choices – Water Law and Policy Conference,” held November 8 at the C.A. Vines Arkansas 4-H Center.

“We think that this has been the strongest, most relevant lineup of speakers and topics we’ve had,” said Tom Riley, director of the Public Policy Center of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. The conference was presented by the Public Policy Center of the UA Division of Agriculture and the UALR-William H. Bowen School of Law.

In 2012, where many of the states bordering the Mississippi River were seared by record drought, the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico to less than 3,000 square miles, of its smallest areas since 1985.

Mike Sullivan, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, provided an overview of the manmade efforts across 13 states to reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, all part of the Mississippi River Basin Initiative.

“Through the voluntary incentive-based approach, working with agricultural producers, we can make a difference in helping them maintain productivity and improve water quality that benefits our local watersheds,” said Sullivan, “Hopefully that will help reduce the size of the hypoxic zone.”

Next steps include in-depth reviews of existing projects, new guidelines for monitoring runoff and sharing lessons learned from successful projects.

Ed Swaim, Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, Water Resources division manager, opened the conference with a presentation on the upcoming updating for the Arkansas Water Plan. “As we go out and talk to people, we want them to see how water planning is relevant to them in the long term, and why it’s important for them to be involved in the process.”

A series of upcoming meetings about the planned up date is for everyone “because we all use water in one way or another,” said Swaim. “Just about everything depends on it. We want people to take an interest in it. Where they have something good to add, we want them to be very involved in policymaking.”

A schedule of meetings can be found here.

Though not scheduled to discuss fracking, keynote speaker Joseph Dellapenna, a water law expert and professor at Villanova school of law, gave a brief overview of legal issues connected to fracking in the northeastern United States. Although Pennsylvania was the first oil producing state -- dating back to 1859 -- the area has not been a major hydrocarbon producer during the 20th century, but that may be changing with fracking for natural gas.

Dellapenna said it’s difficult to prove links between fracking and ground water quality issues. “It’s expensive and time consuming to do the research necessary to verify what’s going on with groundwater.”

Various entities have imposed moratoriums on fracking in New York and Pennsylvania “much controversy.” In New York, there’s a moratorium on all fracking. Dellapenna said the state is eager to protect the headwaters of the Delaware, which is the source of New York City’s water. The water is so pure it is not treated before being delivered to the customer.

“They’re very much concerned about any kind of pollution” which would impose the need to spend billions of dollars to implement water treatment.

Drought was a topic on many people’s minds. When asked how Central Arkansas Water was managing drought and homeowner demand, CEO Graham Rich said, “Water source planning, education and ‘rate planning.’” When gasoline hit $4 a gallon, people began using mass transit and buying hybrid cars. “When you start getting into people’s pockets, they start asking if I need to water my lawn twice a day every day.”

Among the success stories was the rebound of the Sparta Aquifer, which in Union County, was declining rapidly -- between 1 and 7 feet a year between 1991 and 1996. In 1996, Union, along with Ouachita, Calhoun, Bradley and Columbia other counties were designated as critical groundwater areas. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission models indicated that Union County had to reduce groundwater consumption by 72 percent within five years or risk irreparable damage to the Sparta.

Robert Reynolds, president of the Union County Water Conservation Board, said monitoring and cooperation among government, utilities, and the private sector, all led to a rebound.

Alternative water sources, including the Ouachita River and surface impoundments had a palpable effect.

“A January 2012 aquifer test using the same pumping well -- the Monsanto monitoring well -- that had been used for 1947 and 1999 aquifer tests.

“My own interpretation based on preliminary results is that historical heavy pumping has not reduced the ability of the aquifer to recharge, store or deliver water,” Reynolds said in his presentation. “Compaction or other damage to the aquifer has not occurred, but potentially would have occurred had heavy pumping not been curtailed.

“We are very fortunate to avoid a calamity of permanent damage to the aquifer.”

For more information about managing water, visit, or contact your county Extension office.  

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