Rare Woodpecker May Halt $320 Million Irrigation Job

Wed February 01, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

LITTLE ROCK (AP) A federal court has been asked to halt construction on a $320-million irrigation project that environmentalists said threatens the habitat of the rare ivory-billed woodpecker.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation are seeking a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court that would stop work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project in eastern Arkansas.

The group said further analysis of the environmental effects of the project is needed. A hearing was set for Jan. 23, but the judge handling the case stepped aside because of links to a party in the case.

U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele said that while reviewing the submissions in the case at his home he found an affidavit by Kenneth Lee Smith, director of the Arkansas Audubon Society.

While the Audubon Society is not a party to the case, Eisele said he recused because he made a $200 contribution to the society in honor of a friend, Bob Shultz, who was one of the founders of the Arkansas chapter of the society. The case was reassigned to Judge George Howard. It was unclear at press time when the hearing would resume.

Clerk of Court James McCormack said that one of the parties to the case declined to go forward after Eisele mentioned the conflict. McCormack said federal rules wouldn’t allow him to say which of the parties had caused the judge to recuse himself.

The Corps project is intended to help farmers whose operations are depleting underground aquifers. Construction of a $34.5-million pumping station on the White River began in June amid excitement with the announcement of the rediscovery of the rare bird, once thought to be extinct.

The woodpecker was spotted by amateur birder Gene Sparling of Hot Springs in 2004. Scientists later confirmed the sighting, and U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced the rediscovery of the bird last April.

Previous attempts in both state and federal courts to stop the irrigation project have been lost. In the latest case, filed in September, environmentalists said the Corps has refused to perform an in-depth investigation into threats posed by the project to the woodpecker and the bottomland hardwood forests that serve as the bird’s habitat.

The suit seeks a consultation under the Endangered Species Act and a National Environmental Policy Act analysis, arguing that the bird is one of the world’s most endangered and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has described the animal’s status as “bleak.”

The suit claims that removing billions of gallons of water from the White River each year would drastically alter water levels in the wetlands critical to the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Bob Anderson, a Corps spokesman at Memphis, TN, has said the agency worked closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society to gauge the impact the project would have. Also, he said, the Corps is “very interested” in saving the bird and its habitat.

The Grand Prairie project is to include pipelines and canals and on-farm water-holding structures. The construction site, on 241 acres of mostly treeless fields, is more than 20 mi.south of where the rare ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted. In all, the Grand Prairie covers a half-million acres. If all goes as planned, water will be flowing to farms across the White River Irrigation District by 2012.

The region traditionally has relied on water from the Alluvial Aquifer and the Sparta Aquifer, with the Alluvial Aquifer supplying 90 percent of the water used for farming in the region.

The Corps made a final environmental impact statement in 1999, and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others sued in February 2004, alleging the statements did not fully consider the environmental effects.

Eisele ruled that the Corps had complied with federal regulations and had considered the cumulative impact of the Grand Prairie project to divert water from the White River for agricultural purposes. In December, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis upheld Eisele’s ruling.

In May, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor Jr. dismissed a lawsuit by the environmentalists. Proctor rejected their arguments that the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission wasn’t the proper agency to help oversee the project.

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