Friday, September 5, 2008

Report finds state water supply threatened by many problems

Report sounds alarm on state water supply
Posted on Friday, September 5, 2008
Providing tax credits for water conservation, developing alternative crops and appointing a “water czar” are among the suggestions in a report released Thursday on protecting Arkansas ’ water supply.

The report, commissioned by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, calls for a statewide discussion on the state’s rivers, lakes and aquifers, which it says are threatened by pollution and a lack of management.

“Most folks believe we’re at a critical juncture,” said ecologist Kent Thornton, one of the report’s authors. He warned, “If we move into a crisis mode, we will have to respond as did Atlanta and areas in the Southeast,” where water-use restrictions have been imposed in response to a drought.

Conducted by Little Rock engineering and environmental consulting firm FTN Associates, the report is based on a review of studies on water issues, interviews with 75 officials and other people involved in water issues and a telephone survey of 407 people across the state.

Thornton and foundation officials presented the results Thursday at a meeting of about 50 people at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

The foundation is printing 2, 000 copies of the report that it will distribute to state legislators, agency officials and others. It also will be available on the foundation’s Web site, www. wrfoundation. org.

According to the report, the state’s water use increased 55 percent from 1980 and 2000, including a doubling of water use for irrigation.

That has caused a problem in eastern Arkansas, where the groundwater from the Mississippi River alluvial aquifer and deeper Sparta aquifer are being depleted. The report cites studies that have predicted the alluvial aquifer will be unable to supply good-quality water by 2015. The Sparta aquifer will run dry in 2030.

A plan that would divert water from the White River to irrigate rice farms in eastern Arkansas has been stalled by a federal lawsuit claiming it would harm the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat.

The Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance, a group of 26 water utilities, is seeking permission to tap Greers Ferry Lake and Lake Ouachita. During a drought in 2005, some of the utilities ran low on water had to ask residents to cut back, said Steve Morgan, director of regionalism and future water sources with Central Arkansas Water and president of the alliance.

“We’ve been astonished by how well everyone is working together,” Morgan said.

Pollution, especially from storm water runoff, is another threat. According to the report, 78 miles of streams designated for drinking-water use have water quality that falls below drinking-water standards.

The report doesn’t make recommendation but presents dozens of suggestions from interview participants. Those include tax credits or other incentives to families or businesses who install water conservation equipment or maintain easements to improve stream quality. Farmers could also switch to crops that use less water, such as switch grass or timber.

The Rockefeller foundation paid FTN Associates just under $ 200, 000 to conduct the study and evaluate its impact, foundation President Sherece West said. It also provided $ 70, 000 to the Arkansas Educational Television Network for a documentary, highlighting issues in the report, that aired in April.

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