Friday, April 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> Cabot reserves water with CAW

Leader staff writer

The commission that runs Cabot WaterWorks approved Tuesday night the purchase of the last 7 million gallons a day water allocation available in Lake DeGray to ensure that Cabot has water for its residents into the next century.

But the commissioners said during the same meeting that they will not participate in the Lonoke-White Water Project at Greers Ferry Lake until they are provided with accurate information about the cost and other pertinent factors.

Lake DeGray has a total allocation of 152 million gallons a day, most of which is held by Central Arkansas Water.

Tad Bohannon, the commission’s attorney, said the commission is not agreeing to buy water. The U.S. Corps of Engineers, which controls the lake, doesn’t guarantee the quality or availability of water from the lake. But what Cabot WaterWorks does get for a purchase price of $455,000 and an annual maintenance fee of $4,000 is water-storage capacity in the lake.

“This is not an agreement to buy water. You’re buying a jug to hold water,” Bohannon said.

Central Arkansas Water, which formed a decade ago through the consolidation of the water departments of Little Rock and North Little Rock, holds the first right of refusal on an allocation of 120 million gallons of water a day in the lake.

That water source will not be tapped for 50 years. But the plan now is for Cabot to get its water from the lake through lines that will be built by CAW.

Cabot currently gets its water from wells located between Beebe and Lonoke, but a line to connect to CAW’s existing sources, which will supply Cabot with water in the near future, is under construction.

Bill Cypert, spokesman for the commission and a candidate for Cabot mayor, said very few people in the room would be alive when the water from Lake DeGray starts flowing, but he added, “I think it is prudent that we lock this up.”

Chairman J.M. Park, a retired banker and lifelong Cabot resident who remembers when water to bathe in was a luxury, agreed with Cypert. It is critical to ensure a long-term water supply, Park pointed out.

Although the purchase has not been finalized, Cabot also holds a 1.2145-million-gallon-a-day allocation in Greers Ferry Lake through the Mid Arkansas Water Alliance. That allocation is always included when proponents of the Lonoke-White project to bring water to the area from Greers Ferry Lake talk about available water.

But Cypert, speaking for the commission during the Tuesday meeting, said Cabot will not give up its allocation to anyone, especially the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority, of which Cabot is a member.

Cabot might consider leasing the allocation to a city or water association but for no more than a year at a time, he said.

The Lonoke-White project has been ongoing for 15 years, but before construction can begin, about $50 million in funding must be locked down.

The most recent plan has been to use federal money funneled through the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, but whether federal money can be used for the project is unclear because for the most part the water is not needed immediately.

Immediate need is a condition for the federal funding.

Even if the funding is approved, Cypert said Cabot won’t participate without answers to questions the commission has asked for almost four years: How much will the project cost? How much will it cost to operate and maintain? And how will members without MAWA allocations get water?

He said during a later interview that following Bohannon’s advice, the commission threw the water-purchase agreement for the Lonoke-White project into the trash.

As one of the largest members of the project, Cabot wants a weighted vote. The smaller members should have equal power on the board, he said.

Aside for needing water in the future, the attraction for many of the project members such as Beebe is that all 11 members have an equal vote on the board of the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority.

Beebe pulled out more than a decade ago because the projected cost of the water was more than it was willing to pay, but also because it had no voice on the board of Community Water System, the association on the lake that controlled the project.

Since that time, a lawsuit has given control to project members wh0 organized as the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority which is run by a board made up of representatives from all the participating entities.

Woody Bryant, chairman of the board of Grand Prairie Water Association and the project manager for the Lonoke-White Project, said Friday that he was aware of Cabot’s concerns and reservations about the project. If Cabot pulls out, he believes the project will still move forward.

He said progress is being made toward finding the answers to Cabot’s questions. And as for funding, federal money distributed through the state is still very likely, Bryant said.

“The good news is they haven’t turned us down,” he said. “They just haven’t accepted it yet.”