Saturday, April 20, 2013

TOP STORY >> Bayou Meto irrigation on front burner

Leader senior staff writer

President Barack Obama’s proposed 2013 budget includes $5 million for the Bayou Meto irrigation, habitat and flood control project and members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation are trying to get another $23 million to get power to the new pumping stations and water to the first farmers via the Indian Bayou.

That’s according to Gene Sullivan, Bayou Meto Basin project director.

“It’s not nearly enough, but this is the first time we’ve seen the money in the budget,” he said about the $5 million. “It’s just a starting place. It goes to Congress. If it’s in the budget and increases, it’s not earmarking.”

The pumping stations at Scott and Reydell (Jefferson County) are nearing completion. The Scott pumping station will move 1,750 cubic feet of water per second from the Arkansas River into the system. That’s enough water to fill 40 in-ground backyard swimming pools a minute. The Reydell pumps, for flood control purposes, will put water back in the river.

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

The entire project, which would irrigate about 267,000acres needs another $600 million, Sullivan said Friday, but the first half of that can be irrigated for less by putting water in Indian Bayou, Salt Bayou and Bayou Meto.

Money for the three-year plan constructs the inlet channel from the river to the Marion Berry Pump Station at Scott, builds an outlet structure to the first canal, pays for electrical substation and transmission lines and constructs more canals.

The off-farm component involves 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 area covered by the Bayou Meto project is currently irrigated by 2,600 wells.

Forty of 50 Lonoke County irrigation wells studied by the U.S. Geological Survey declined between March 2008 and March 2012, as much as 12 feet, but most often between two and four feet.

So with the aquifer being drawn down by irrigation pumps in recent years faster than it can recharge, and with the cost of pumping irrigation water from below the ground cutting into revenues, farmers look wistfully toward the Arkansas River, where the plan to divert tons of water into ditches, streams, pipes, canals and ponds, mostly for irrigation purposes, is hostage to the economy and to politicians who would cut government spending to the bone.

If the project is funded at about $28 million this year, it can pump water through a canal and into Indian Bayou, Sullivan said. Farmers near the bayou can then irrigate and fill their irrigation ponds from the bayou, relieving pressure on those steadily falling aquifers, from which they otherwise pump, especially during summer and times of drought.

Last year, the project was not directly funded, but the Army Corp of Engineers, which has program oversight, moved $5 million to it to keep it going--at the behest of senators Sen. Mark Pryor and Sen. John Boozman.

Otherwise the project would have been mothballed at a cost of $500,000.

“Pryor is kind of the lead man, but (the whole delegation) is supportive. We’ll be meeting with each one,” he said. “Boozman and (Cong. Steve)Womack are on appropriation committees, we’re in (Cong. Rick) Crawford’s district and the pump station is in (Cong. Tim) Griffin’s district.”

“We need money to get water into the basin, so we can begin selling water and protecting the aquifer,” Sullivan said.

The first farmers to get water when the pumping starts will because those along a stream, down past England and to the lower end of the project.

In her last term as senator, Blanche Lincoln got a $37 million appropriation that funded pump station construction.