Natural water resources extremely low in 14 Arkansas counties

By Josh Harvison - bio | email

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - The Arkansas Natural Resource Committee Monday told Region 8 News community leaders and farmers have been working to increase the ground water supply. According to the Arkansas Ground Water Protection and Management report, aquifers in 14 counties west of Crowley's Ridge are extremely low.

"On the west side of Crowley's Ridge, we're seeing a continual fall. On the east side, over towards Lake City over in there, the water table seems to be holding its own and doing well," said Randy Ferguson, District Conservationist with the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.

Ferguson said Monday the problem is that water from the alluvial aquifer, which is where water for irrigation purposes is pumped from, is being obtained faster than rainwater can replenish it. Ferguson said there are a number of reasons for this.

"It's sandy soil. You're getting a little more water percolate down through the soil. On the west side of the ridge, you have silt and clay soils. And also you've got rice being grown over there to a larger extent," said Ferguson.

Ferguson said farmers in counties west of Crowley's Ridge typically grow soybean, rice and corn. The Department of Agriculture has been monitoring aquifer levels since 1984.

"It has to do with the demand and certain parts, certain areas of the state and various counties have a higher demand for irrigation water and others, there's not quite as much of a demand because of the crops being grown," said Ferguson.

Ferguson said aquifers are replenished during the winter months when the bulk of the state's rainfall soaks the ground. He said water levels decrease during the summer.

The state and federal governments have been offering tax credits and financial aid programs to farmers who want to limit their water usage.

"Through a Critical Groundwater Designation, there's a lot of benefits to the farming community and to everyone as a whole. There are tax credits. There's incentives for federal programs. And there's education programs," said Alec Farmer with the Arkansas Natural Resource Commission.

Farmer said the Critical Ground Water Designation has worked in southern Arkansas.

"South Arkansas has had a Critical Ground Water Designation for a number of years and you can already see a marked improvement. Their water has not only leveled off in depletion, it's actually started to replenish," said Farmer.

The policy of the Arkansas Natural Resource Committee is to "move towards a sustainable yield pumping strategy through conservation utilizing critical ground water area designation wherever needed to focus resources and minimize water-level declines. Designation as a Critical Ground Water Area brings about enhanced tax credits for conservation activities, focusing educational programs, and sets the area as a priority for possible federal programs and funding."

In southern Arkansas, the Grand Prairie project is a $420-million effort to pull water from the White River instead of using ground water. The project has helped the area stabilize its underground reserves. Farmers in Region 8 have been encouraged to take advantage of federal and state incentives.

"We got a program called the Environmental Quality Incentive Program that we work with farmers on doing things like land leveling and underground irrigation pipeline, tail water recovery systems, reservoir construction, re-lift pumps, picking up surface water out of the ditches and some of these things. We pay approximately 50% of the cost in most cases," said Ferguson.

"We're in the beginning stages of getting our area organized and what we're trying to promote is local support. And the counties realize it and most people do in the farming communities involved in agriculture realize that we've got a problem, and we're trying to get organized and get the focus on the area called the Cache Study Area," said Farmer.

Ferguson said Arkansas receives 46-48 inches of rain per year.

"The underground water table is a very concerning issue because when that one depletes, your water for irrigation of crops such as rice, for instance, which is a , you know, has to have water, it's going to be a serious issue," said Ferguson.

"I can't say for sure how long but I do know that there is a decline. We have looked at it over the years and you can see a decline in the ground water table," said Ferguson. "It's coming down the road if we don't take steps and that's what the Natural Resources Conservation Commission is trying to do in declaring certain areas a Critical Ground Water Areas."

"What everybody is well aware of is that there's been a significant depletion of groundwater, especially over the last ten years," said Farmer. "What we've been seeing is about an average of a foot or more of depletion of groundwater over the last ten years and really before that."

Kevan Inboden, Special Projects Administrator at Jonesboro City, Water & Light, said Monday the Jonesboro area has massive quantities of water and could sustain "aggressive" growth over the next 20 years.

"In our area, east of the ridge, the farmer's impact today is not negatively impacting our operation," said Inboden. "For farmers, when you look at the increased cost for diesel and irrigation equipment, they're trying to better utilize that water and that resource and I think, when you talk to most farmers these days, they're actually extracting less water on a given field than they were just a few years ago."

Inboden said if people don't address the issue now, then finding water could be more difficult down the road.

"We're just really, from a natural configuration of the resource here, from the aquifer here, we're just in a great situation and we're just really fortunate, but that doesn't mean that we're not taking a very very active approach in managing that resource because it's a precious resource," said Inboden.

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