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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

"Don't worry about conserving water. This isn't California. We have plenty of water."

This comes, unexpectedly, from C. Tad Bohannon, chief executive officer of Central Arkansas Water, the largest public drinking water system in Arkansas.

All this time we've thought otherwise. We're often encouraged to turn the tap off when brushing our teeth or shaving. Don't let water run when washing vegetables. Make sure dishwasher and laundry loads are full. Water lawns only when needed.

Not according to Bohannon. "Don't bother with installing water restrictors in your shower," he cheerfully tells an audience at Quapaw Quarter Association's recent Preservation Conversations lecture. "We're dumping water on the ground because there's too much to use. There are systems built for 6,000 houses where there are now 1,500 houses."

Besides, adds the exuberant CEO since 2016, "our water's cheap; you get a good deal for your water."

I suspect he's exaggerating a bit about abundance, but still, it's good to know we're not in danger of running out of water anytime soon.

CAW, serving over 450,000 consumers in 17 communities, uses two quality sources: Lake Winona in Saline County and Lake Maumelle in west Pulaski County.

The utility delivers water via gravity from Lake Winona and by the use of pumps from Lake Maumelle to Ozark Point Water Treatment Plant in Hillcrest. It is then conveyed to Jack H. Wilson Water Treatment Plant in the Pleasant Valley area of Little Rock.

Despite all the improvements and innovations developed along the way, "We convey water the same way we did 100 years ago. We do things just like the Romans did--through a network of pipes," Bohannon said.

Nine of those pipes in central Arkansas are still lead lines which, as famously illustrated by the city of Flint, Mich., can allow lead to contaminate household drinking water.

No worries here, according to Bohannon. "We know where they are, the owners know, and we're working to replace them," he said. Ironically, the Arkansas Legislature required the use of lead lines in 1887.

A brief history of public water in central Arkansas: In 1837, water was delivered for fire protection, not for drinking, he said. "To get flows needed for fires, you have to have big pipes, and they have to be maintained. Drinking water came from wells."

Public wells (which tap underground water sources) and cisterns (which hold captured rainwater) were built in 1837--one year after Arkansas achieved statehood. This system wasn't ideal as the water wasn't especially clean, and putting out fires using cistern water was inefficient.

By 1869, according to CAW's website, the Legislature authorized construction of a supply system for drinking water, with residents paying by the size of their houses, he said. "But nothing got done; the city didn't find enough money to do it, and gave up by 1874."

By 1877, after three destructive fires and several fever epidemics, the city took steps to build a comprehensive water system. "Reservoir Hill [on Hill Road] was laying pipe by 1878," although the company doing it went broke by 1879, Bohannon said.

From the late 1880s to the mid-1930s, a succession of investor-owned utilities served Little Rock and North Little Rock. Among them was a system built in 1880 by Zeb Ward, one of the founders of Mountain Valley Spring Water Company in 1883, lessee of the Arkansas State Penitentiary from 1872 to 1882, and president of the Little Rock and Mississippi Railroad. "By 1882, nobody was happy with the water quality," Bohannon said.

Rebsamen Golf Course was the water reservoir field. Intake, near the current location of Cajun's Wharf, pumped water from the Arkansas River up Reservoir Hill, and came back back to the city via gravity. Service was OK, but the water quality was poor.

In 1927, the river rose 10 feet above flood state to 33 feet. There was a drought later that year, then another in 1930.

"A new water source was necessary by 1934," Bohannon said. Arkansaw Water Works Company owned the Little Rock system from 1910 to 1936 when the city of Little Rock, after securing a federal grant and loan, purchased facilities serving the south side of the river from private owners.

North Little Rock Water Company owned the system north of the river from 1936 to 1959, when the city of North Little Rock purchased facilities serving its corporate boundaries and rural customers.

Little Rock Municipal Water Works began construction from Lake Winona to the Ozark Point Water Treatment Plant in July 1936. Completed in February 1938, it conveys to Jack H. Wilson Water Treatment Plant and supplies a significant part of the utility's service area.

In June 1958, water from the then new pump-driven Lake Maumelle source flowed into the system, with more pumps being added through 2010.

In 2000, "Water for Our Future: Overcoming Regional Paralysis," a study by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, marked the beginning of a new era in cooperation and metropolitan services for Little Rock and North Little Rock.

At the time, according to CAW and Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the two cities had a 64-year-old history as water supplier and customer. The UALR study encouraged the cities to move past geographical differences and corporate interests toward the good of the customer base and surrounding areas.

The result was a decision by governing bodies and water commissions to merge Little Rock Municipal Water Works and North Little Rock Water Department into Central Arkansas Water. On March 5, 2001, city and water officials signed a consolidation agreement. On July 1, 2001, the utilities merged human resources and operations.

I remember, when living for several months in Washington, D.C., in 1990, that everyone was carrying around plastic bottles of water. That wasn't happening in Little Rock at the time. Why? I wondered. Then I tasted the water that came out of the District's fountains and taps. And understood how much better ours was, and remains.

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 02/16/2020

Print Headline: Our water: past, present, future


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