Saturday, October 17, 2009

TOP STORY >> Bayou Meto project gets boost

Leader senior staff writer

Of the $108 million in water project construction funds affecting Arkansans, the $100,000 grant for the Bayou Meto irrigation project is huge, said Gene Sullivan, executive director of the Bayou Meto Water Management District.

The Bayou Meto basin project needs $80 million to build irrigation pumps on the Arkansas River at the top end of the basin and flood control pumps at the lower end, according to Sullivan. It is intended to control flooding, protect waterfowl habitat, reduce demands on the aquifer and to irrigate about 300,000 acres of Arkansas farmland, much of it in Lonoke County.

Sullivan said the importance of the $100,000 appropriation was that the project now officially has its foot in the door for future construction money.

“The goal was not the money, but the start,” Sullivan said. “We’re real excited to get the start.

“There were only three or four construction starts in the country,” he said. The announcement came in a joint press release from the Arkansas congressional delegation and was part of a much larger energy and water appropriation.

Rep. Marion Berry “has been our leader,” said Sullivan. Sen. Mark Pryor and Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott also have helped,.

“This bill provides millions of dollars in funding for valuable projects like water irrigation, flood control, and conservation and construction throughout our state,” said Berry. “These investments in rural water infrastructure and energy research will support additional economic development opportunities for Arkansas.”

Also included was $9.6 million for construction of the Grand Prairie Demonstration Project, which is quite similar to the Bayou Meto project, but ran into a lot of opposition because it takes water from the more pristine White River, revered by fly fishermen and nature lovers.

Dennis Carmon, executive director of the Grand Prairie project, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Lack of anticipated funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year left the ambitious irrigation, waterfowl management and flood control project twitching at the starting line.

The plan is to pump 1,740 cubic feet a second of water from the Arkansas River—that’s 13,000 gallons per second.

The water is conveyed through channels, ditches and pipes, lifted by pumps when necessary, until it arrives at about 1,200 farms where the farmers have agreed to tax themselves and to pay for the water.

It will require four pump station facilities, 107 miles of man-made canals, 260 miles of work on existing channels, 465 miles of pipelines and more than 500 water control structures.

The entire project will cost about $400 million, according to Sullivan, preferably over the course of seven years.

The entire project, which will irrigate 270,000 acres of farmland in Lonoke, Jefferson, Prairie, Arkansas and Pulaski counties and 22,000 acres of commercial fishponds, would provide waterfowl habitat and also a way to get floodwaters off the low-lying southeast part of the basin and back into the Arkansas River.

Farmers have been pumping water from the aquifers faster than it can recharge, threatening not only the irrigation water, but also drinking water from the deeper Sparta aquifer.

Because Sullivan and others opened the planning process to farmers, conservationists, hunters, land owners, environmentalists and others, the plan was conceived without any organized opposition, Sullivan said.