Judge Allows $319M Irrigation Project to Proceed in Arkansas

Sat September 18, 2004 - West Edition

LITTLE ROCK (AP) Environmentalists made poorly founded complaints –– and made them too late –– about an irrigation project that would use White River water to irrigate crops in Arkansas’ Grand Prairie region, a federal judge said in declining to stop the project.

U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele ruled Sept. 9 in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a lawsuit filed against the agency by the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation and other plaintiffs.

At the center of the suit were claims that the Corps of Engineers didn’t perform required studies to justify a $319-million project to pump water from the White River to area rice farmers.

The Corps and many farmers in the White River region say the project is needed to save their rice fields and the underground aquifers that are drying up from overuse.

The environmentalists’ lawsuit claimed the Corps should have performed a new environmental impact statement when it made changes to the project, which includes a pumping station near DeValls Bluff; miles of irrigation pipelines; and water-conservation systems, such as reservoirs and ditches, built on individual farms.

Eisele agreed with the Corps’ argument that the environmentalists should have registered their complaints during the official review process four years ago. In addition, Eisele decided that the Corps didn’t fail to file the impact statement because it addressed those issues in reports filed July 2, 2004, that found the changes had no significant economic impact.

Terry Horton, executive director of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, was disappointed in the decision and said the plaintiffs need to decide whether to appeal. He also noted that the fight against the project isn’t over.

“The judge was not deciding whether the project was good or bad, but whether the Corps was following the law or not,” Horton said. “They still have to get approval from Congress for tens of millions of dollars to fund the pump on the White River, and we intend to fight against that, as we have successfully in the past.”

The Bush administration has consistently declined to recommend funding for specific items for the project. In the absence of the bulk of funding, the White River Irrigation District has been relegated to building the conservation measures on farms, work that is 65 percent funded by the federal government. But Congress recently dedicated more than $3 million to allow the Corps to begin site work for the pumping station.

Fearing that any work on the pumping station itself would be irreversible, the wildlife federation persuaded Eisele to bar the Corps from hiring contractors for the construction work.

The environmentalists have a state lawsuit pending that challenges the state Soil & Water Conservation Commission’s role in the project. Horton said he hopes the ban on construction contracts stays in effect until the state case is resolved or environmentalists file an appeal.