Boozman visits irrigation projects meant to preserve Arkansas groundwater

East Arkansas farmers should mostly leave aquifers alone once canal systems can transport water from two rivers, farmers say

By: - August 25, 2022 12:15 am

U.S. Sen. John Boozman shakes hands with Lynn Sickel (right), a Prairie County farmer who hosted Boozman, his staff and several members of the White River Water Management District board Wednesday afternoon to discuss the progress of an irrigation project that will serve farmers in four counties. Some of the canals for the project are being built on Sickel's land. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Two water infrastructure projects decades in the making would make Arkansas farmers less reliant on one of the most-used aquifers in the state, officials said Wednesday after U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, visited both projects.

The Bayou Meto and White River water management districts have each been digging canals and installing pipelines to transport surface water across much of eastern Arkansas so crop farmers can use it instead of groundwater for irrigation. Both projects were authorized in the 1950s and have been in the works for more than 30 years.

Boozman met with board members for both districts Wednesday, first at a farm near Lonoke in the Bayou Meto district and later at a farm between Hazen and DeValls Bluff in the White River district. 

Board members and engineers predict that both water transportation projects can start pumping water from rivers and delivering it to rice, corn and soybean farmers within the next few years.

“Once we get it done, I think we can all be very, very proud of getting it done,” Boozman told Bayou Meto board members. “I think we’ll be a model for a lot of the rest of the country.”

The state’s most widely used aquifers are the Sparta/Memphis Aquifer and the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer.

The deeper Sparta/Memphis Aquifer contains water clean enough to drink and does not recharge easily, said state Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra, a farmer in Arkansas County whose district includes areas that both irrigation projects will serve.

“That water needs to be saved for future generations to use as drinking water,” he said. “With this project, we can completely get agriculture out of the Sparta aquifer.”

The alluvial aquifer is more widely used because it has a larger recharge capacity and is closer to the surface, Hillman said.

“If we get this project done, I look forward to that one being at a steady state or maybe even rising a little bit over the years,” he said.

Abnormally hot and dry weather throughout Arkansas this year made it difficult for some farmers to keep their crops adequately watered, and being able to transport surface water across the state would be a relief in future droughts, Hillman said.

Two large-scale infrastructure projects will deliver water from the Arkansas and White rivers to crop farmers in parts of six counties. At least one of the two projects should start pumping and transporting water next year, officials and engineers say. (Source: Arkansas Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Division)

Service areas and funding sources

The Grand Prairie irrigation project will pull water from the White River and serve 247,556 acres of irrigated land in Arkansas, Prairie, Lonoke and Monroe counties. The Bayou Meto project will pull water from the Arkansas River in Scott and serve 265,561 acres of irrigated cropland in parts of Lonoke, Prairie, Jefferson, Arkansas and Pulaski counties.

Billi Fletcher, a Lonoke County farmer and Bayou Meto board member, said surface water is healthier for crops than groundwater, which is not available everywhere in the district.

“The groundwater needs to be used by municipalities and industry and supplement what we can use from the surface,” Fletcher said.

The two projects are funded by the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The NRCS announced in July 2020 that it would provide $35.6 million for the Grand Prairie project and $28.1 million for the Bayou Meto project.

Additionally, both projects could get $5 million each from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds after the ARPA Steering Committee approved the allocation last week. The money will help the state match the existing funds from the NRCS and the Corps of Engineers, pending approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council, Arkansas Natural Resources Division Director Chris Colclasure said.

The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission released a report in June 2021 that claimed Arkansas’ use of groundwater was unsustainable. The report came from the 2020 collection of data from 555 water wells measured in the alluvial aquifer and 202 measurements from the Sparta/Memphis aquifer.

The data estimated that 51% of withdrawals from the alluvial aquifer were sustainable, compared with about 54% of withdrawals from the Sparta/Memphis aquifer.

With this project, we can completely get agriculture out of the Sparta aquifer.

– State Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra

Arkansas is second in the nation in groundwater usage behind California and comprises 11% of national groundwater withdrawals, according to U.S. Geological Survey 2015 data. Agriculture is the state’s top industry and the primary use of the 9.3 billion gallons of all kinds of water that Arkansans use every day, according to the data.

“Light at the end of the tunnel”

The Bayou Meto Irrigation Project is likely to start moving water next year after some of the canals and bridges are finished, said Edward Swaim, executive director of the Bayou Meto Water Management District.

The Corps of Engineers is building canals, and the Arkansas Department of Transportation is responsible for building bridges that the Corps designed and the district is funding, Swaim said.

“The things that the district has control of are moving quite well, and we have a schedule and we’re staying on that schedule,” Bayou Meto district assistant director Tony Ramick said.

He added that he is concerned about the financial aspect of maintaining the project while waiting for the Corps to finish building canals.

“Until those canals are complete, we can’t pump water, and if we can’t pump water, we can’t [maintain] cash flow,” Ramick said.

The Grand Prairie project aims to start moving water in the spring of 2025 but hopefully will “under-promise and over-deliver,” said Robert Moery, a Little Rock-based consultant working with the White River Water Management District.

Boozman said he plans to call a meeting of all agencies involved in the two projects in October after Congress adjourns.

“The biggest challenge that we have right now is making sure we have all the agencies talking together so that the paperwork doesn’t lie on a desk because they’re busy doing something else,” he said. “These are good people that work very, very hard. They’ve got other problems that they’re dealing with, but we’d like to make sure this moves along in an expeditious way.”

He praised the board members of both districts for their persistence and patience and said “the light at the end of the tunnel” is finally within sight.

“It wouldn’t have happened without you all hanging in there for so long,” Boozman told the White River board members.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.