Bush budget ignores WRID project

For the second year running, President Bush has left the $319 million Arkansas Grand Prairie (GP) demonstration project out of his proposed budget. Predictably, proponents of the project see the omission as benign while opponents are portraying it as another black eye for the embattled plan.

“It was a very predictable, wartime budget. It's heavy in defense. Like all Americans, I knew when the Twin Towers went down Sept. 11 that the footing of the nation would change drastically. The federal budgetary process is part of that. It was foreseeable that the next budget would be heavy in defense (It was. Bush has called for a $48 billion increase in defense spending),” says John Edwards, executive director of the White River Irrigation District (WRID) — which would oversee the completed water delivery project.

With that in mind, the fact that the Grand Prairie demonstration project had no money allotted in Bush's budget doesn't surprise Edwards. And, he points out, most state projects aren't in presidential budgets anyway — the GP project has only been in a president's budget once before under President Clinton, an Arkansan.

Last year, after the House went along with the president and allocated no money to the project in its budget, Arkansas' senators worked to get the project $12 million. Does Edwards see the same thing happening again?

“We have to increase the use of surface water in this state. The Arkansas delegation knows this. I suspect the delegation will support the project and do what they can.”

Edwards cautions against making definite statements regarding project funding.

“Again, Sept. 11 changed everything. All along this project (which proposes to take water from the White River and, through a system of pipes, deliver it to mainly Grand Prairie rice farmers) was a multi-year, many-phased appropriation project. I see nothing that's going to change that. But there will be some years — and this year will be one of them — where funding will be tough.

“Right now, I have no idea what Congress will be able to come up with for us. We don't have a target per se. All we ask is for Congress to balance the country's needs to fight terrorism with our state's need to deal with a growing water problem. That's all.”

A caveat

Last fall Edwards said ground would likely be broken for the pumping station in late spring/early summer 2002. That still holds, says Edwards, with one major, new caveat: Bob Livingston, a former Louisiana congressman.

“There is an issue we're now dealing with regarding the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). When an appropriations bill is signed into law, OMB is responsible for breaking the funds out so agencies can utilize them.

“We know that Livingston — who is now a lobbyist in Washington — has provided incorrect information to the Corps of Engineers and OMB.”

According to Edwards, Livingston has told the Corps two “absolutely false” things: that there is no irrigation district and that the GP plan doesn't have a project sponsor.

“Both are clearly not true. First, the WRID was formed in August 1984 by a circuit judge in Prairie County. Second, we have two sponsors: the WRID and the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

“Livingston has been putting out false claims. We've lately been trying to let everyone in Washington know these claims aren't true. Hopefully we can get the situation cleared up.”

The situation is curious because Livingston voted for the GP project on numerous occasions when he was in the House of Representatives, says Edwards.

“We just want him to know — and we've provided information to appropriate parties — that he's wrong about these two things, among others.”

[At presstime, a message from Delta Farm Press to Livingston's voicemail had not been returned.]

Plans and opponents

The $12 million the GP project was appropriated last year was not to be used for building a pumping station, but for on-farm conservation measures such as reservoirs. Are such conservation structures still being built?

“With the money that's been appropriated, we're currently modifying existing contracts. We're not signing any new on-farm construction contracts.”

One issue facing the WRID board is what to do about issuing any new construction contracts this year, says Edwards. With what has already been contracted, according to the engineering reports, when all on-farm conservation features are built, “that'll pretty much be all the GP can sustain without an import system. If we continue to build on-farm storage without that delivery system, we could create a problem instead of solving one.”

Edwards says there's only so much water that can be taken without affecting natural streams. If everyone is building conservation features that are near streams or ditches, there won't be any water running through the natural waterways.

With the budget news, meanwhile, project opponents are reinvigorated and are claiming momentum in the battle. Edwards says he's heard their concerns loud and clear.

“Towards the end of the Civil War, Lincoln said we needed to turn to the better angels of our nature. I think it would benefit everyone to focus on how we're going to manage our water instead of rancor for its own sake. The comments of some — and I stress some — of the project opponents are more anti-farmer or commodity-related issues instead of water issues.”

Arkansas already provides priority protections in streams and rivers for fish and wildlife, says Edwards. The GP project is asking to use just a small percentage of the excess water in these rivers and streams. State law says that 75 percent of the excess water is off-limits automatically. So everyone has to share in the 25 percent of excess that's left.

“With all the things we're willing to do, with all the things state law provides, I don't think our desire to use a small amount of that 25 percent is unreasonable. That's particularly true when you know that we're trying to protect another valuable resource: the aquifers. The aquifers are as important as the rivers.”

When some opponents attack the GP project as allowing the overproduction of commodities, Edwards says, “They're missing the boat. Commodity markets can change rapidly. New opportunities, such as the Cuban markets, are opening more every day. Our state and this region are about to benefit from some markets that have been closed out for many years. Food security is something we need.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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