NRCS invests $66.9M to address agricultural water management, water quality, and flood control

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (News release) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is investing in one existing and three new multi-year projects in Arkansas that will build vital infrastructure and conserve natural resources.

The Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (Public Law 83-566 [PL – 566]) Watershed Program allows NRCS to work with local groups to reduce damages from flooding, protect watersheds, improve municipal and agricultural water management and enhance wildlife habitat.

“Watersheds are natural boundaries,” Arkansas NRCS State Conservationist Mike Sullivan said. “Using this watershed program in Arkansas helps protect lives and property, improves natural resources, and supports agricultural production within our state’s watersheds.”

The new projects are:

  • Grand Prairie Irrigation Project – The project, in portions of Arkansas, Lonoke, Monroe and Prairie counties, will allow continuation of intensive irrigated crop production on 245,400 acres utilizing surface water from the White River once all measures are constructed. Project benefits include energy savings, water savings, and groundwater protection. Agricultural water management will increase irrigation efficiencies and reduce groundwater withdrawals to help achieve sustainable yields from aquifers. The White River Irrigation District and the Arkansas Department of Agriculture are the project sponsors.  The $35.6 million in federal funding includes $28.3 million for construction that requires a local match of $9.4 million.  An additional $7.3 million is available for technical services. This funding will construct Phase I of the project and build approximately 12 miles of irrigation water distribution canal over the next three years. 

“The NRCS funding is great news for the Grand Prairie,” said Dan Hooks, president of the White River Irrigation District. “The goal of the White River Irrigation District has always been to bring affordable water to our farmers and the NRCS funding will help accomplish that goal. The District appreciates the partnership between NRCS, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of Arkansas that keeps the project moving forward,” he added.

  • Bayou Meto Irrigation Project – This project, in portions of Lonoke, Prairie, Jefferson, Arkansas, and Pulaski counties, is designed to move much of the agricultural water demand to surface water sources and create a long-term sustainable use of the aquifers for municipal users and remaining industrial and agricultural users. Agricultural water management will increase irrigation efficiencies, provide supplemental water for agricultural crops utilizing the Arkansas River as the surface water source and reduce groundwater withdrawals to sustainable yields. The Bayou Meto Water Management District and the Arkansas Department of Agriculture are the project sponsors. The $28.1 million in federal funding includes $22 million for construction that requires a local match of $7.3 million.  An additional $6.1 million is available for technical services.  This funding will construct over 25 pumping stations and water delivery pipelines and improve the water flow on eight miles of Indian Bayou for irrigation water distribution.  This, along with the United States Army Corps of Engineers construction of the main canal, will allow irrigation water to be delivered to producers in the Indian Bayou Watershed. 

“There is a critical need for these irrigation projects due to declining levels in the Alluvial and Sparta aquifers that are used for agricultural irrigation, municipal, and industrial water,” Sullivan said. “These projects will balance the use and supply of existing surface and ground water resources so agricultural production can continue sustainably into the future.” 

“USDA NRCS has an incredible history of working with a broad range of partners in order to achieve results,” said Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward. “State Conservationist Mike Sullivan and his team continue to go above and beyond to help secure federal funding for our state and our state’s agriculture industry.  We are excited about the opportunity to continue working together in order to help move these critically important projects forward,” he added.

  • The West Fork of the White River Watershed Project is a joint project between the Watershed Conservation Resource Center, the Beaver Water District, Walton Family Foundation, Beaver Watershed Alliance and NRCS.  The watershed project builds upon 15 years of planning and design by the partnership to reduce sediment and improve water quality for the West Fork of the White River and Beaver Lake.  The project received funds in 2017 through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to develop a watershed plan and stabilize three miles of streambank through natural channel design methods.  The $375,000 funded will be utilized to develop the designs and construction plans for the streambank restoration projects.

“We are grateful to NRCS for helping the Watershed Conservation Resource Center and our partners to create this amazing opportunity to restore reaches of the West Fork White River,” commented Executive Director Sandi J. Formica of the Watershed Conservation Resource Center.  “Not only will this project reduce sediment and nutrients to the river and Beaver Lake watershed, but it will set a direction to restore aquatic habitat, save valuable agricultural and forests lands, and restore boating and fishing recreation to the local community and the region. This has been a true watershed effort that are the results of scientific-based assessment and planning over two decades,” she said.

  • A long-term project, Departee Creek Watershed received $2.5 million in federal construction funding and $250,000 for technical services to protect frequently flooded lands along Departee Creek.  The overall project will provide flood control benefits and water quality improvements in the watershed.  NRCS and the Departee Creek Watershed Board completed the selective snagging and debris removal along Departee Creek and construction of a weir at Lake Whitstine in 2019.  The next major feature of construction is the flood water retarding structure at the headwaters of Departee Creek. The project also includes compensating landowners for permanent flowage easements along the creek to protect existing wetlands.

“Seeing this project come to fruition after nearly 30 years of effort will be a true blessing for this community,” said Departee Creek Watershed Improvement District Board Chairman Matt Mendenhall. “We’ve completed the first stage by removing tons and tons of snags and brush from the stream and it has had an immediate, positive impact. We hope to start on the flood prevention structure next year. That will be the jewel in the crown for our watershed. Improved water quality, greatly reduced flooding, improved wildlife habitat and reduced nutrient loss will be some of the many benefits of this PL-566 project.  Of course, none of this would be possible without the NRCS engineers and staff who have guided this project from the start and provided outstanding technical support. There’s no way we could have done this on our own,” he said.

NRCS works with project sponsors, such as conservation districts, local governments and Native American tribes. PL – 566 watershed projects take place in smaller watersheds that cover 250,000 acres or less.  The projects are owned and managed by the local sponsors. NRCS serves as the primary technical adviser to project sponsors because of its technical expertise and ability to deliver solutions that provide benefits that exceed costs.

PL – 566 has helped communities address critical needs on flood control, water management, watershed protection and development. These strong federal, state and local partnerships have resulted in the construction of more than 2,000 watershed projects that help communities in every state in the nation and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Watershed projects through this program reflect a federal investment of about $6.2 billion and deliver an estimated $2.2 billion in average annual benefits nationwide. 

In Arkansas, the first watershed projects constructed were floodwater protection dams built in 1954 on Six Mile Creek in western Arkansas. Prior to the construction of the dams, flooding in the Six Mile Creek watershed was much worse and more frequent. There have been 35 completed watershed projects since Six Mile Creek was started.  Included in these 35 projects are 209 small and medium size flood control dams and hundreds of miles of flood control drainage ditches.  Built by NRCS, in partnership with local watershed districts, these earthen dams and ditches provide an average annual benefit of over $51 million from the reduction in flooding.

“History has shown us that smart, proactive investment in these watershed protection projects yield immense benefits for landowners, agricultural producers and communities while protecting our natural resources,” Sullivan added.

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