Lake group concerned about proposed changes to water system

DANIEL A. MARSH Staff Writer Published January 22, 2012 at 3:27 a.m.
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— Members of an organization whose purpose is to protect Greers Ferry Lake hope more people from the public will voice concerns about a proposed change to a water system that has been in planning stages for almost a decade.

Plans for a new water system that would serve about 100,000 people in the central Arkansas region are going through a review process by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Part of that process is a public comment period, during which the Corps accepts comments on the project from the public. The end of the comment period is Friday.

The system would transmit water from Greers Ferry Lake south to eight communities in central Arkansas. More than 60 miles of main water line would be laid to serve Austin, Beebe, Furlow, Grand Prairie, Jacksonville, North Pulaski, Ward and Vilonia.

One group, Save Greers Ferry Lake Inc., opposes a modification that could leave the uppermost portion of the highest intake structure exposed above the lake’s surface when the water level drops.

Leonard Uecker, president of SGFL, said the exposed intake screen would pose a hazard to people recreating on the lake, as well as negatively affect aesthetics, tourism and local property values.

The project, which is managed by the Lonoke-White Public Water Authority, has been proposed for the Cove Creek area of Greers Ferry Lake.

Bond Consulting Engineers, Inc. and Crist Engineers of Little Rock are the engineers.

Uecker said his group is not opposed to the overall project but is concerned about safety and aesthetics.

“We’re for it, because it would supply the best drinking water in the state to people who are losing their water to over development,” Uecker said. “ Ev-erybody looks at this lake as a wonderful, unlimited water supply. We are not against helping people get good water.”

The Corps granted a water allotment eight years ago to serve the communities, Uecker said, but a new permit request “asks for major changes in construction.” His group objects to at least one of those changes.

In December, the Corps issued a public notice regarding the new permit request. That notice was issued on Dec. 8, and the period for public comment was set to expire on Jan. 2. Uecker said SGFL was unsatisfied with that time frame. Laurie Driver, Corps public relations specialist, said the holidays might have prevented many people from responding, and an extension was granted on Jan. 12, thus leading to the new end date for comments on Friday.

“We certainly hope people will make their opinions known,” Uecker said.

Sarah Chitwood, Corps project manager, said the regulatory division has received some comments for and against the project.

“When we ask for public comments on an issue like this, it’s not a popularity contest,” Driver said. “It’s about how we think this project would affect the lake, not if people like it or not. Comments help us make a good evaluation of the permit request. We’ll be receiving comments from local, state and federal agencies, along with the general public.”

Uecker said the Arkansas Department of Health requires the intake at the highest elevation underneath the lake to be built at a height greater than SGFL originally approved. The change, if approved, would move the tallest intake screen as much as 7 feet closer to the lake’s surface.

He said that according to the health department, the best water for drinking purposes is that which is closest to the surface.

“They haven’t done any testing to determine that, not in our lake,” he said. “We agreed to an elevation of 450 feet (mean sea level), and the engineers basically agreed to that elevation.”

The proposed changes would put the tallest intake at 457 feet (mean sea level). Those seven feet are important, according to the health department.

“Starting off with the best quality water when you withdraw it from the lake is important,” said Jeff Stone, chief engineer with the health department. “Water quality in a lake varies according to depth. In order for a water system to have the best chance of complying with drinking-water standards, … it needs to be able to draw at different depths as the elevation changes.”

He said the health department wants “great flexibility” in the designs but is at “some disagreement” with SGFL on those designs.

Stone said the uppermost intake would have a cap or “blind flange” that would be utilized if the lake rose to the highest elevation of 470 feet (mean sea level).

At its deepest point, Greers Ferry Lake is maintained at 200 feet deep, Driver said.

Stone said the preliminary designs he has reviewed “did not have specific test results, but it’s generally understood that as you go down deeper in [a] lake, the water quality degrades.”

Organic matter such as decayed leaves and other minerals are drawn into an intake system as water is withdrawn from lower depths.

“In the environmental engineering profession, that’s not an issue that is disputed,” Stone said. “We’ve been working with the parties involved to agree on the front end to design proposals that would be acceptable and provide adequate water quality.”

Tommy Bond, president of Bond Consulting Engineers, said his firm and Crist have applied to the Corps to modify the permit that was granted years ago.

“The permit has to be modified anyway because [the health department] won’t allow us to build what was originally approved,” he said.

A treatment station and inclined lines will be built on a ridge in the area of Cove Creek, and the lines will extend down into Greers Ferry Lake. SGFL and the engineers had originally agreed to horizontal water lines, but because of cost-saving factors, Bond decided to change its design - hence the modification.

“It’s also cheaper by $5 million,” Bond said.

He said his firm and Crist have worked with SGFL to mitigate the loss of trees and other visible signs of construction in the area. However, he said, concerns about the danger of exposed intake screens “are not valid.”

“They’re worried about safety,” he said. “The Corps and the health department require us to put a series of buoys 100 feet apart on a 300-foot radius around the intake structures.”

There will be four water lines built into the lake, each containing three intake screens.

“Those buoys say no boats allowed,” he said. “To me, that nullifies the concern about boater safety. The buoys are Coast Guard-approved, with flashing lights and signs. The fact is that the intakes would be out of the water - we don’t argue that they won’t be; the lake will fall. It will probably look like a big rock sticking up.”

He said the treatment plant will not be visible from the lake, and the water lines will be buried.

“Cove Creek is not a major lake artery,” he said. “So the concerns about the appearance and boater safety just aren’t there, from my standpoint, and I admit I’m the guy that wants to build [the system].”

He said the “overriding concern for public health is much stronger than the concern about the aesthetics.”

One treatment plant at the Cove Creek site would treat the water that will be transmitted south. Further “tweaking” of the water would take place at substations in member communities.

The system will be funded by a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. Bond said groundwater in the area that will be served by the system “has been dropping for the last 40 years. The concept of taking water out of Greers Ferry Lake and transmitting it to the area has been around since the1970s. The need for a surface water supply has been there and recognized for 40 or 50 years.”

Bond said he expects the project to be opened for bidding in late March or early April. Two phases of construction - on the transmission line and on the intake structure and treatment plant - would take place simultaneously over the life of a two-year contract.

Comments on the permit application can be sent to Sarah Chitwood, project manager, Little Rock District Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Division, P.O. Box 867, Little Rock AR, 72203-0867, or emailed to sarah.l.chitwood@usace.army.us.

Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3699 or dmarsh@arkansasonline.com.

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