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Grand Prairie Irrigation Project Awaits Fall in White River

Sat March 13, 2010 - Southeast Edition

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) More than a year after a federal judge ruled a rare woodpecker couldn’t stand in the way of a massive irrigation project, a top official said it will be several more years before rice and soybean farmers can use water from the White River to irrigate their crops.

When complete, the $400 million-plus Grand Prairie Irrigation Project will include 102 mi. (164 km) of canals and 290 mi. (466 km) of pipelines moving water from a pumping station near DeValls Bluff to farms in Prairie, Arkansas, Lonoke and Monroe counties. The first farms to receive water will be in the northern area, west of DeValls Bluff.

Paul Hamm, project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said current plans call for the water to start flowing into farmers’ fields in 2013, and the last pipe will be laid several years later.

Dennis Carman, executive director of the White River Irrigation District based in Hazen, said he expects it to be seven to eight years before all the work is done.

But when the water finally reaches the fields, it should significantly reduce the need for farmers to pump water from an aquifer that has been seriously depleted in recent decades, Carman said.

Lawsuits, the size of the project and funding issues have all contributed to the long construction time and delays, he said. Work on reservoirs and pipelines began on individual farms in 2001, but construction on a pumping station on the White River north of DeValls Bluff didn’t start until June 2005.

Work stopped again after a federal lawsuit was filed in September 2005, claiming the project could damage possible habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker. Some ornithologists believe the rare bird can still be found in the Big Woods region of east Arkansas.

A federal judge threw out the woodpecker lawsuit in December 2008, clearing the way for work to resume. Then came the rains.

Record rainfall in 2009 had the White River overflowing its banks for much of the year, and the pumping station site remains flooded, Carman said. He estimated it would be mid-June to July before work can resume.

In the meantime, the pumps have been delivered to the Army Engineers’ Memphis District, which is overseeing construction, Hamm said. They will be powered by four massive, 6,000-hp (4,472 kW) motors and two smaller, 1,500-hp (1,118 kW) motors that Hamm said he expects a contractor to start building in the next few months.

The farmers ultimately will pay 35 percent of the project’s costs, currently estimated at between $396 million and $437 million. The federal government will pay the rest.

At the federal level, one problem in getting money has been the fact that the Corps’ mission does not include projects to provide agricultural water, said Randy Young, executive director of the state commission. Advocates and the state’s congressional delegation have had to present the project as a demonstration that could be funded outside the Corps’ usual means, he said.

Local authorities have had an easier time, receiving authorization to sell bonds to provide construction money. The bonds will be paid off with farmers’ water fees. Carman said about 40 percent of farmers in the area covered by the project have signed contracts taking advantage of a low, introductory rate of $26 per acre-foot — the amount of water it takes to cover an acre with water 1 foot deep.

But he said that rate will increase and many farmers haven’t yet signed up for all the water they are likely to want. Only about 35,000 acre-foot of an expected capacity of 350,000 acre-foot annually have been committed under the early contracts, he said.

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