Friday, October 22, 2010

TOP STORY > >Big water project to get under way

By John hofheimer
Leader senior staff writer

Gene Sullivan was so like a new dad at the groundbreaking Friday for the first Bayou Meto Basin Project pump station near Scott that he should have passed out cigars.

The baby in this case—a $614 million irrigation, flood-control and wildlife-management project—was first authorized by Congress about 60 years ago, and the gestation period for “the most important thing that’s happened in Lonoke County for a long time” has been about two decades, according to Sullivan, the executive director.

“This will be the jewel for Lonoke County,” said state Sen. Bobby Glover (D-Carlisle).

In time, as water becomes less abundant, others from around the country are expected to come see the Bayou Meto Basin project.

The project will reverse the depletion of the aquifer and will irrigate more than 300,000 acres of Lonoke County farmland.

“We’ve been working on it for 20 years trying to save the aquifer for the municipalities,” said Gary Canada, president of the Bayou Meto Water Management District.

Speaking briefly, Sen. Mark Pryor called Rep. Marion Berry, “an early advocate and visionary. (The project) was on life support a couple of times and he was your only friend.”

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of the water,” Pryor said, attributing the quote to Benjamin Franklin.

“It’s going to be a model project,” Pryor said.

While there was plenty of credit to spread around, Sullivan praised Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Gov. Mike Beebe for putting together about $60 million in state and federal money to finally make the project a reality.

“It was Sen. Lincoln who primarily got us $37 million (in stimulus money) for the project,” Sullivan said.

He also praised Berry. “Here’s the fellow who brought us to the dance,” Sullivan said as Berry joined the gathering.

Quoting an old fishing buddy, Berry said, “You’re not serious until you pour the concrete.” Sullivan said that could happen before the end of the year.

Berry and Pryor spoke glowingly of the project.

The Bayou Meto Basin Project includes portions of Lonoke, Jefferson, Prairie, Arkansas and Pulaski counties.

The project area encompasses 765,745 acres, of which 369,874 acres are irrigated and 22,942 acres are commercial fish ponds.

Pump Station No. 1 and its reservoir on the Arkansas River near Scott will be built by Harry Pepper and Associates of Jacksonville, Fla., at a cost of $31 million.

At the low end of the basin, at Reydell in Jefferson County, a second pump will help with flood control and wildlife and habitat preservation by pumping excess water back into the river. That pump station will cost $12 million.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, will supervise construction.

The pumps near Scott will take 1,750 cubic feet of water per second from the river—that’s sufficient to fill 40 in-ground, back-yard swimming pools a minute.

The off-farm component in-volves pumping the water from the Arkansas River into a 465 miles of pipeline, 107 miles of new canals and 132 miles of existing streams and ditches, moving the water to where the farmers can hook onto it.

The on-farm component — for which the federal government would pay 65 percent — would be valuable to farmers even if 
Congress had declined to fund the river-pumping part.

Pumping from the Arkansas River is projected to lower the pool level by about six inches.

The Natural Resources Con-servation Service will work directly with farmers to plan and help pay for the on-farm component.

The plan calls for 312 miles of tail water recovery systems and construction of 10,539 acres of new on-farm storage reservoirs—ponds—to meet peak demand.

The farmers tax themselves to help with construction costs and pay for the amount of river water they use.

Farmers don’t want the expense of pumping water from the deeper Sparta aquifer, and the towns and cities that pull their own water from the Sparta don’t want farmers sucking it dry.