Wednesday, July 18, 2012

EDITORIAL>>She covers water front

Woody Bryant, the project manager for the Lonoke- White Water Project, made a point of acknowledging everyone involved with the $57 million project during the groundbreaking ceremony in Ward on Friday morning.

Later, as the dignitaries donned hardhats and dug into a row of turned earth beside the Ward Chamber of Commerce building for a groundbreaking ceremony, Terry House, the manager of Grand Prairie Bayou Two, the water association that sued to get control of the project away from its original owners, joked that Bryant should have acknowledged me because I’ve been with the project as long as anyone.

Frankly, I’ve been with it longer.

I have covered the Lonoke-White Project since it was nothing but a scowl on the faces of the North Little Rock Water Commission and a gleam in the eye of Greg Smith, the manager of Community Water Systems in Greers Ferry, which got the project started.

Back then, 18 years ago, North Little Rock was growing weary of Little Rock refusing to sell them water for the subdivisions that developed on the outskirts of the city and were eyeing Cove Creek on Greers Ferry Lake.

Water officials talked about building an intake facility at Cove Creek and laying a waterline all the way back to North Little Rock that would supply them. And they could pick up customers along the way to help pay for it all.

They were still talking when Smith announced a similar plan was under way. CWS would build a project for Lonoke and White counties just like it was building for Faulkner and Cleveland counties. People in all four counties needed the water, in some cases desperately needed it. CWS could supply that need and by adding customers, it could keep its customers’ rates low.

That was how Smith explained it to me when I asked, “What’s in it for CWS?”

It wasn’t long before the rumblings of discontent started among the members of the Lonoke-White Project. The water was going to cost more than they wanted to pay and they didn’t like that they would have only one vote on the CWS board.

The timeline has become blurred over the years. I can’t remember dates only thereabouts. But I do recall that it was early on that Smith talked to the Cabot City Council when Joe Allman was mayor and the Ward City Council when Butch Phillips was mayor saying the grant money they hoped to have to start the project wasn’t available.

Like the water in their wells, the grant money was drying up.

About that time, maybe 14 years ago, Beebe pulled out, taking with it the only reason the project was called Lonoke White since Beebe was the only White County city involved.

Given the option of paying more for Greers Ferry water or sticking with their wells that showed no signs of decline, Beebe voters went with the wells.

That was a big loss for the project. Beebe was the largest city with an average income low enough to make the project eligible for grants if they became available.

In the meantime, the Faulkner-Cleveland Project was completed and Cabot dug wells to supply residents. Cabot still saw surface water as its best option for a longterm source of water but CWS insisted the new wells must be closed after lake water was available, sooner even than the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, which regulates municipal wells, said they must be.

But on the horizon was a new alliance that would offer a better deal. North Little Rock and Little Rock were no longer at odds over water. They were becoming one. It literally took an act of Congress, but together the two water departments became Central Arkansas Water, and they were looking for customers outside Pulaski County.

The water was cheaper than from CWS and Cabot pulled out of the Lonoke-White Project. That act set off a desperate chain reaction. Without Cabot, CWS found new members but still needed to increase rates of customers of the Faulkner-Cleveland Project to help pay for Lonoke-White. Faulkner-Cleveland customers understandably balked, and the project came to a dead stop even though ANRC stood ready to loan construction money.

Eventually, Grand Prairie Bayou Two, which came in after Cabot pulled out, filed suit to get control of the project for the newly formed Lonoke-White Public Water Authority.

They won and all the members benefited. They owned it, but there was no money for construction.

There was hope for a time after Barack Obama became president and economic stimulus money became available for shovel-ready projects. The Lonoke- White Project met that requirement because it had made it all the way through the bidding process years before.

That hope ended when it became clear that the federal government was not giving or lending money stimulus money for any water project where the need was not immediate. And over the years, as the project floundered, the members found other sources. They needed the water for the future but not now.

By that time, Beebe was back., The other members are Jacksonville, Ward, Austin, Furlow, North Pulaski, Vilonia and Grand Prairie/Bayou Two.

Cut to Friday morning and the celebration over funding. The governor was there because the state is contributing a loan of almost $31 million to build the project. The Congressional delegation was there because the fed is contributing a loan of almost $26 million. And I was there because it’s my job and because I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

I never think of the Lonoke-White Project without remembering that little engine that could. And I was happy for everyone involved even though my name wasn’t called during the acknowledgements.

—Joan McCoy