Tuesday, December 13, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Protecting our water

When public and private interests collide and hundreds of millions of dollars of future wealth are at stake, it can get messy. It is a political fact of life that in such competitions private interests are most apt to prevail.

That, alas, is what is about to happen with the zoning dispute at Lake Maumelle, the principal source of water for nearly 500,000 of us in the metropolitan region. The Pulaski County Quorum Court is about to vote on a land-use plan for the Maumelle watershed that sprawls across the western part of Pulaski County and beyond. The basic issue is simple—whether the county should be able to restrain development around the lake to protect the quality and safety of the drinking water for the next 50 years or developers and landowners should be free to make of the land whatever they like—but the details are not simple at all, and the unlikely fusion of interests make it impossible to say what the practical best course of action is.

The municipal water system built Lake Maumelle in 1957-58 by damming the Big Maumelle River. Its sole purpose was a water supply for the metropolitan region, although fishing and sailboating are allowed. The 70 miles of forested shoreline through the mountain valleys provide rare vistas, and it was only natural that as Little Rock grew westward the lake became increasingly attractive for residential and commercial development. Deltic Timber Corp., one of the largest developers in the state, picked up 12,000 acres and hopes to develop upscale subdivisions along the slopes and valleys above the lake.

Central Arkansas Water, which owns the lake and the water system, worries about the corruption of the water supply if intense development along the shores and in the watershed occurs. It has happened in many cities. CAW has been battling Deltic for four years and succeeded in blocking legislation that would have prevented the utilities, the cities and the county from ever exercising any control over land use in the watershed. But the developers may get their way anyway.

The utility’s watershed planning committee developed a watershed plan, but it has been waylaid on its way to the Pulaski County Quorum Court. Deltic had major amendments attached to the plan to allow far more dense development than the committee first intended. The plan originally would have allowed the development of some 6,000 to 7,000 new homes in the 79,000-acre watershed in three counties, but the amendments have raised that, by one analysis, to about 36,000 homes, or a population of 91,000. That would be a city of about the combined size of North Little Rock and Jacksonville draining its residue into the water supply.

The Central Arkansas Water Board and the County Planning Board have signed off on the revised plan, although they had reservations. Groups interested in protecting the future water supply, mainly Citizens to Protect the Maumelle Watershed, oppose the plan. They have been joined by people on the other side—way on the other side, those who want little or no regulation of land use.

They include tea-party groups across the state and Americans for Prosperity, the lobbying arm of the Koch brothers, the oil and gas billionaires who oppose government regulation of anything at any level. The Farm Bureau has thrown in with them and denounced the already neutered zoning ordinance, calling the claim of water-quality protection a subterfuge for a plot to stop growth. The Farm Bureau actually wants the taxpayers of the county to pave all the dirt roads in the Maumelle watershed, which would enhance the development.

Republicans on the quorum court are supposed to be preparing a remedy that would meet the demands of the foes of all land planning.

So the practical choices now seem to be a badly flawed ordinance that would permit dense development that will degrade the water of our children and grandchildren, or something perhaps much worse. This Hobson’s choice does not entertain the needs of 400,000-plus people and their descendants, but it is how the world works today.

The only rational voice seems to be that of the League of Women Voters, which says adopt the flawed ordinance as the best that is possible at the moment and then work to somehow strengthen it some day. We would hazard the forlorn guess that any future changes would be in the direction of dirtier, not cleaner, water. That also is how the world works today.