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Report: Arkansas farming a drain on water; again, irrigation cited in draw-off

by Emily Walkenhorst | June 24, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas continues to be one of the biggest users of water in the country, according to data released last week by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Numerous federal, state and local agencies have pushed farmers to implement more water-saving technologies and infrastructure to avoid a shortage that is projected in a few decades in east Arkansas. Many farmers have adopted them, but the technologies and infrastructures cost too much for other farmers, who also are not taking much advantage of the state's tax-credit program for such projects.

Most of the state's water use comes from irrigation, according to the data. The state's water plan says that the use is unsustainable in east Arkansas, where most of the state's crops are planted and the most irrigation is used.

Arkansas drew off the second-largest amount of groundwater for irrigation in the United States in 2015, behind only California, according to the data. The geological survey gathers the data every five years and issued its 2015 report on Tuesday.

Arkansas drew off 9.3 billion gallons a day that year, while California took 13.9 billion gallons a day. In one average day in Arkansas, that's enough water to fill 14,082 Olympic-size swimming pools.

"We can't just continue to rely on groundwater," said Mike Daniels, a water-quality and nutrient-management specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division.

Government leaders and farmers are going to need to do two things, Daniels said, both of which involve a shift to surface water. Daniels said investment must go into farm infrastructure that saves water, such as reservoirs, and the Grand Prairie and Bayou Meto irrigation district facilities must be completed so farms can start getting water from them.

Those irrigation districts would take water from surface sources and send it to farmers. The irrigation districts have been in the making since 1950, when they were first approved by Congress, but have been held up because of funding. The completed projects are estimated to cost more than $1 billion. Construction continues, but the districts are not yet delivering water.

Construction of a reservoir on farmland to store and transport water and collect rainwater could cost as much as $500,000 on a large farm, according to Debbie Moreland, program administrator at the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

Farmers mean well, she said, and would jump at the chance to save money by using less water. But not every project is affordable and only so many projects can receive federal assistance every year, she said.

Farmers also have been hit recently with higher fuel prices and lower crop values, which have tightened their finances.

Last year, state farmers and other landowners received $143 million in Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, according to Moreland, who said it was the second most in the United States. That left $100 million in project requests unfunded, which Moreland said was typical.

More farmers could implement water-saving techniques or infrastructure if they applied for more conservation tax credits, said Edward Swaim, water resources division manager for the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The state is allowed to grant up to $10 million in tax credits under the program, but claims topped $1 million only once that Swaim can remember. They are usually about $900,000.

Swaim said the commission would attempt more outreach to farmers about the program, which he thinks many of them simply don't know about because the commission has not pushed it enough.

Daniels and Moreland said they thought the effort by farmers to reduce water use has gained momentum in recent years.

Robby Bevis farms 3,000 acres of corn, beans and rice just south of Interstate 40 in Lonoke County. He said he's saved water and money by planting "cover crops" in the winter to protect soil health and by changing the way he waters his rice.

Lonoke County is the nation's 17th-biggest user of groundwater for irrigation. In 2015, it used an average of 584.5 million gallons of groundwater a day for irrigation.

For comparison, Central Arkansas Water's Lake Maumelle pumping station has the capacity to pump only a fraction of that -- 133 million gallons a day to the utility's approximately 400,000 drinking-water customers. It supplies most of the utility's daily demand, according to the utility's website.

In an average day in Lonoke County, farmers pump enough water to fill 885 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Bevis, a fifth-generation farmer, recently started planting cover crops during the winter when he's not growing his cash crops. Cover crops keep the soil healthy and moist so he doesn't have to till it, which he says isn't as effective. At the end of the winter, Bevis sprays the cover crops -- usually cereals like rye and oats -- with herbicides and lets them sink into the land and feed the soil.

"There's nothing to feed the biology without cover crops," he said.

They also trap rainwater.

"Your ditches don't fill in, you're not losing water to rivers and streams," he said.

By spending $25 to $30 on each acre of cover crops once a year, Bevis makes up for the cost of his investment less than halfway through the winter, he said. Tilling costs about $8 an acre, and farmers till about six to eight times a winter. In other words, cover crops cost him about $75,000 to $90,000 a year, but tilling costs him about $144,000 to $192,000 a year.

The improved soil also allows him to go 10 to 14 days between irrigating his crops, he said, whereas the average farmer irrigates every five to seven days.

He's reduced his water usage by about 30 percent, he said, though he didn't have specific numbers on how much money that has saved him.

Bevis also has started alternating between wetting and drying rice for the 200 acres he plants. That means he floods the rice for a certain number of days and then turns off the water and lets the ground get muddy before turning it back on.

That uses less water, and it reduces the greenhouse-gas emissions caused by the flooding.

Bevis also has started using a free Internet program called Pipe Planner, which determines how water should be released from pipes onto the land based on information Bevis inputs into the program. It's too time intensive to use on all of his 3,000 acres, he said, but it's cut down on irrigation time on the 750 acres he uses it on now.

Lonoke County is the state's fourth-largest user of groundwater for irrigation.

Arkansas County used the fifth-largest amount of groundwater for irrigation in 2015 of all U.S. counties, coming in at an estimated 901.7 million gallons a day. Poinsett County was sixth, using 865.9 million gallons a day, and Clay County was eighth, using 816.2 million gallons.

Arkansas was second in groundwater used for irrigation, but it was also second in total groundwater withdrawals for any purpose, behind only California, which uses 17.4 billion gallons a day, compared with the state's 9.6 billion gallons.

The Natural State was fifth in total water use (13.8 billion gallons a day), because its surface-water use was middle-of-the pack (4.2 billion gallons a day for 24th in the nation).

All totals were up from what the state used in 2010, when it also was second in total groundwater use (7.8 billion gallons a day) and seventh in total water use (11.3 billion gallons).

Metro on 06/24/2018

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