Monday, June 07, 2010

TOP STORY >> Irrigation funds are approved

IN SHORT: Sen. Lincoln gets $37 million in federal aid for a massive flood-control project that will also allow farmers to use water from the Bayou Meto.

Leader senior staff writer

Sen. Blanche Lincoln announced Friday evening that she had secured $37 million in stimulus funds for the Bayou Meto Basin Project, a sprawling irrigation, flood-control and wildlife-habitat project 60 years in the making.

That means Lonoke County farmers and some others can soon irrigate their fields without continuing to deplete the drinking-water aquifer. And the Bayou Meto drainage basin will be less likely to flood, as far north as I-40.

Finally, water will be available for waterfowl habitat, and water can be pumped out of the basin to save flooded hardwoods.

The project will irrigate about 300,000 acres of farmland, most of it in Lonoke County, with some acreage in Pulaski, Prairie and Jefferson counties.

Lincoln said the project is shovel-ready and the contract must be awarded before Sept. 30 to comply with the requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The local match, about $18 million to be paid for with state bonds, brings the total to $55 million toward buying and installing eight massive pumps—six to pump water out of the Arkansas River at Scott for irrigation, two to pump water from the lower end of the basin at Reydel over the levees and back into the river to minimize flooding.

“This is a critical piece to the local economy,” said Lincoln, who is in a close runoff Tuesday with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for the Democratic nomination for her Senate seat. “It creates jobs immediately. Area farmers have been working on this for a long time.”

Congress first authorized the project in 1950—about the same time the interstate highway system was begun.

“It’s very critical to the drinking- water supply,” Lincoln said, “and it helps ensure the sustainability of (irrigation) agriculture in a responsible way.

“It puts dollars back in the community. It produces jobs in agriculture and in construction as well,” she added.

“We’re already making requests for fiscal year 2011 dollars to finish up,” the senator said. “Normally we’re not able to get going with this good an investment. Now we can do it in half the time it ordinarily would take. We’ve got it in concrete now.”

“People told me that money (for this) was absolutely not available,” said Gene Sullivan, executive director of the Bayou Meto Basin Project. “And she got it. It was a shock to everybody when she came up with that money. The project is going to be built now. We hope to build it in seven years.”

“I hounded everybody I could find from the administration, the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers and my colleagues,” Lincoln said. “So it’s important that we move these dollars.”

“The match will come from state bonds,” Sullivan said. “We have an agreement to pay it back from the sale of water to the farmers.”

The Arkansas Natural Resource Commission is the sponsor.

The Scott station will pump 1,750 cubic feet of water per second into the system. At that rate, those pumps could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in about 50 seconds.

“Talking about the aquifer, we designed it to be sure that we can continue to use the amount of irrigation water we are using now without depleting the aquifer, and we should even have a little recovery,” Sullivan said. “We figured out how much we needed, how much we could safely take out of the aquifer, increase efficiencies (on the farm) and that’s how we set the (pumping) capacity.”

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.

The project will require two pumping stations, 107 miles of man-made canals, 260 miles of work on existing channels, 465 miles of pipelines and more than 500 water-control structures.

Additional improvements could add about $200 million to the project, according to Sullivan, preferably over the course of seven years.

The project 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 floodwater 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.