NYTimes.com Article: Arkansas Rice Farmers Run Dry, and U.S. Remedy Sets Off Debate
- Subject: [cg] NYTimes.com Article: Arkansas Rice Farmers Run Dry, and U.S. Remedy Sets Off Debate
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- Date: Mon, 11 Nov 2002 14:31:09 -0500 (EST)
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This is an extremely rare NY Times article on US agribusiness and water use (the old gra y lady is usually oblivious to these issues.) As food security and water usage often come up as topics, I though this article might be of interest to the agriculture extension agents on this list.
Arkansas Rice Farmers Run Dry, and U.S. Remedy Sets Off Debate
November 11, 2002
By DOUGLAS JEHL
ULM, Ark., Nov. 5 - Rice farmers like John Kerksieck are on
the brink of draining one of Arkansas' biggest aquifers
That alone is troublesome, in a state that gets almost 50
inches of rain a year. But even more confounding - since
these Southern farmers will not be the last to find
themselves in such a pickle - is the question of what to do
Most of the farmers want the government to send them
replacement water from the White River. The Army Corps of
Engineers and the state support a plan to spend more than
$200 million in federal money on the project, or about
$300,000 a farmer. It is time, they say, for the government
to do in other states what has long been done in the West -
provide irrigation water to farmers who have no other
But others are concerned about the precedent such a project
would set. If the government rewards farmers who use up
their water here, they say, what is to stop others from
doing the same?
The debate touches on issues of water rights and
responsibilities, and spills over into farm policy, because
one issue is whether taxpayers should have to spend more to
help grow rice, which is already heavily subsidized. It
also involves wrangling about whether the corps, which has
been limited to navigation and flood control, has any
business wading into irrigation.
One interest group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, contends
the plan is a boondoggle of the first order.
Farmers here in Arkansas' Grand Prairie, one of the
country's richest rice-growing areas, see it differently.
"We really don't have a water problem," said Mr. Kerksieck,
42, in hunting garb in anticipation of the duck season,
which rivals rice farming as the Grand Prairie's main
preoccupation. Like many here, he traces his lineage to the
farmers who arrived in the early 1900's, starting a century
of pumping from the aquifer at rates that could not be
"There's plenty of water in the river," Mr. Kerksieck said.
"They've just got to let us divert it."
Another farmer, Lynn Sickel, 51, said: "I'm a conservative
person. But if this is what it's going to take for highly
productive farmland to continue to provide food nationally
and internationally, well, that's the taxpayer's burden."
David Carruth, a local lawyer who had led opposition to the
plan, posed the question a different way. "Why shouldn't we
say to these farmers in the Grand Prairie: `You've known
since 1940 that you had a problem with your aquifer, and
you went ahead and overpumped it anyway,' " he said. " `Why
should we go ahead and grant you another resource?"
Neither Congress nor the Bush administration has made a
final decision about the plan, with total cost estimated at
$319 million, with the federal government paying 65
percent. But nearly all sides agree that time for a
decision is running short. Water levels in the shallow
aquifer, known as the Alluvial, are declining at rates so
fast that by 2015 there will not be enough left underground
to sustain the area's 1,000 farms, which cover about
250,000 acres and represent about 5 percent of country's
The economic impact of such a collapse could surpass $46
million a year, the corps has estimated.
The Grand Prairie is not the only area in trouble because
of declining groundwater. Underground water accounts for 22
percent of American water use, and in many areas, including
much of the Great Plains, coastal Florida and North
Carolina and parts of the Mississippi Delta, it is being
depleted. Even in eastern Arkansas, whose aquifers are fed
by the Mississippi River, overuse has prompted state
officials to designate a second area as critical because of
But the Grand Prairie area is the first whose aquifer
problems have prompted the Corps of Engineers to propose
stepping in, a move that many see as an important test case
as water shortages, even in the East, have become common.
"One could take the position that, hey, the farmers are the
ones who created this mess, so why don't we just let their
wells go dry and let everybody go broke, and then the
problem will fix itself," G. Alan Perkins, a Little Rock
lawyer and an authority on water law, said. "But the
critical problem is that right now, we're facing an
imminent aquifer failure."
Like many states, Arkansas has essentially never limited
the amount of water that farmers can pump from their land.
In the last 50 years in the Grand Prairie, farmers have
relied increasingly on irrigation, over and above ample
rains, to increase the yields of their crops. The farmers
have increased by nearly tenfold the amount of water pumped
from the Alluvial Aquifer, even as its level was declining
by more than a foot a year, the state Soil and Water
"By allowing limitless access to such a resource, we
encourage overexploitation," said Robert Glennon, a law
professor at the University of Arizona and the author of
"Water Follies," a new book on groundwater depletion.
Even now, under the critical area designation, state law
permits limits on pumping only if an alternative source of
water is made available to the current users at equal or
lower cost. Arkansas hopes that alternative can be the
White River, but it says it cannot carry out the project
without significant federal help.
"We see groundwater depletion in Arkansas being a major
problem, and one that involves the national interest, and
really the only federal agency with the expertise and
ability to deal with it is the corps," Earl T. Smith, chief
of the Arkansas commission's water resources management
Under the corps' current plan, about 2 percent of water
from the White River would be diverted for farm use, a
project that would include pumping stations, canals and
reservoirs. The plan, which the corps said would save the
aquifer by reducing pumping to sustainable levels, has
passed an environmental review, but faces opposition from
outdoor and environmental groups like the Arkansas Wildlife
Federation. The groups contend that lower river flows could
alter the habitats of certain fish and migratory birds,
including ducks, and thus hurt fishing and hunting.
Congress has allocated $45 million for the project, and
farmers and the State of Arkansas have spent an additional
$11 million. The Bush administration has not included the
plan in its budgets. Although withholding a final decision,
the Office of Management and Budget has limited how the
corps can spend money already allocated for the plan,
restricting it to conservation purposes.
Mr. Carruth, the critic of the plan, said a better approach
would be to retire some farmland and to spend federal money
on technology to enable farmers to use water more
efficiently. That approach, he says, eases overpumping of
the aquifer without the costly river diversion.
"Why should we subsidize a pump that will sell subsidized
water to grow a subsidized crop?" he asked, noting that
federal price guarantees mean that rice farmers receive
$3.10 a bushel for their crop, more than twice the current
$1.40 market price.
An analysis by the corps said that without White River
water, there was no way to save enough underground water to
continue irrigation at anything but a tiny fraction of
The farmers say the goal of maintaining a domestic food and
fiber industry, and avoiding further reliance on foreign
suppliers, is well worth the federal cost, even if it means
guaranteeing water and crop payments for their rice.
"There is a long and established history of the federal
government being involved in water resources development
and protection" John C. Edwards, the executive director of
the White River Irrigation District, which represents the
1,000 Grand Prairie farmers, said. "There has been a
federal interest in irrigation in 17 Western states. Now
that water problems are coming to the East, we can learn
from the past to make this a better project for the
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