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Earmarks ban may shutter Arkansas irrigation work

Two east Arkansas irrigation projects totaling nearly $1 billion are at risk of losing federal funding because of a congressional ban on earmarks.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Two east Arkansas irrigation projects totaling nearly $1 billion are at risk of losing federal funding because of a congressional ban on earmarks.

The Grand Prairie and Bayou Meto irrigation projects are intended to reverse the depletion of the Alluvial and Sparta aquifers, which have been tapped by farmers for decades. More than $200 million has already been spent on the projects, which are under way.

A meeting is set for Tuesday among officials from the irrigation districts, project engineers and members of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the funding prospects. The results would be dire if the funding dries up, officials said.

"That would be a killer," Dennis Carman, chief engineer and director of the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project, told the Southwest Times Record reports (http://is.gd/LUQBZi).

Last year, President Barack Obama announced he would veto bills with earmarks and the Republican-controlled House put a two-year moratorium on earmarks, which direct federal funding to specific projects in members' home states.

Randy Young, executive director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, said work on the projects would have to stop without the federal money.

Both projects are 65 percent funded by the federal government, with the remaining 35 percent from local and state sources, including bonds. The plan is to repay the bonds with revenue from selling water to farmers in the heart of rice country. Arkansas leads the nation in rice production.

The $450 million Grand Prairie Irrigation Project will divert water from the White River to more than 1,000 farmers in Arkansas, Lonoke, Monroe and Prairie counties. The $575 million Bayou Meto Project would tap the Arkansas River to fill reservoirs in Arkansas, Jefferson, Lonoke, Prairie and Pulaski counties.

Both projects call for on-farm reservoirs and tailwater recovery systems.

The Bayou Meto project would also control flooding and protect 55,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat.

Already, $213 million has been spent on the projects.

At Grand Prairie, $99 million in federal money and $33 million in state and local funds have been spent. The project is nearly 25 percent complete, including a canal from the White River to a pumping station at DeValls Bluff.

At Bayou Meto, $60 million in federal dollars and $21 million in state and local money has been spent, with two pumping stations now under construction.

"We've certainly got a major hurdle to overcome to get federal funding to complete these projects," Young said. "One thing the Corps is looking at is to see if they have the ability to reprogram some of the money that has been appropriated, for example in the Lower Mississippi Valley . reprogram some of that money to these projects. If we can get that done, it will preclude us from essentially shutting construction on the two projects."

Cheryl Willis, spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers Memphis District, said if that money can't be obtained, "we will do an orderly shutdown of the project to ensure minimal impact to these projects until they are funded again."

Michael Teague, spokesman for Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said Pryor opposes the earmark ban and tried unsuccessfully to get funding for the irrigation projects.

Teague said that Pryor is trying this year to directly fund certain Arkansas projects that go through the approval process.

Some Republicans in the state's congressional delegation who supported the moratorium on earmarks last year have say they are open to bringing back earmarks if the process becomes more transparent.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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