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We're in the southern part of Arkansas County--somewhere between the communities of Lodge Corner and Bayou Meto--on a hot September day. Dedicated duck hunters know the area well.

In fact, I'm familiar with the road we're on because of past trips to Little Siberia, a famous Arkansas duck club. We're just a few miles from the club. The conversation on this day has nothing to do with duck hunting. It has everything to do with farming, irrigation and the Sparta Aquifer.

The Sparta extends from Texas north into Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee and east into Mississippi and Alabama. The withdrawal of groundwater from the aquifer for public consumption and industry began in the early 1900s. During the 20th century, most groundwater withdrawals for agricultural irrigation here in Arkansas County were from the shallow alluvial aquifer because it was more cost-effective. As the alluvial aquifer declined, deep wells were utilized to tap the Sparta.

From 1965 until the end of the century, there was a 471 percent increase in withdrawals from the Sparta in Arkansas County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

I watch as large pumps pull water from Bayou Meto and deposit it into an irrigation canal. The canal was dug 106 years ago by employees of L.A. Black of DeWitt, a legendary figure in southeast Arkansas. When Black died in December 1945, he left behind farms, cotton gins, one of the world's largest rice mills, and mercantile businesses.

I'm with Jerry Lee Bogard and engineer Steven Danforth of Stuttgart. Bogard, 64, has raised rice on three continents. Danforth, who graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas in 1980 and was named the state's outstanding young engineer in 1995, established a company known as Agri Process Innovations in 1999. The company provides engineering and technical consulting services to the food processing and biofuels industries.

Bogard believes privately owned Grand Prairie Farming & Water Co. represents the future of agriculture on the Grand Prairie and has a model that can be replicated worldwide. The company, which owns 27 miles of canals and pipelines and is looking to expand, provides farmers with sustainable surface water for irrigation. That preserves groundwater while reducing nutrients in the surface water.

"The benefits being produced by the project are in keeping with the Environmental Protection Agency priority mandates of preserving our nation's clean drinking water and also the reduction of nutrients flowing within our rivers to the detriment of the Gulf Coast region," U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas recently wrote to the EPA.

Grand Prairie Farming & Water sells surface water to farmers so they won't have to use deep wells that tap the Sparta. Bogard says the process reduces nitrates, phosphates and other substances that otherwise would travel down the Mississippi River and be deposited in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bogard hopes to build 1,000 acres of reservoirs to hold water and then recycle that water. After irrigating crops, excess water will collect in the reservoirs and then be returned to the source. It will be cleaner than when it was taken out.

"At one point this summer, all the beaches in Mississippi were closed," Bogard says. "That ought to tell us something."

Bogard hands me a jar of water that was collected where the pumps are taking it from Bayou Meto. It's murky. Several miles away, he fills a jar of water from a canal. The water originally came from Bayou Meto. It's as clear as water from a spring-fed stream.

"We're providing farmers the water they need to irrigate crops and cleaning it up at the same time," Bogard says. "We can do this kind of thing all over the country."

Bogard describes it as "just-in-time delivery of surface water" at costs that average 50 percent less than water pumped from wells.

"We will take water down here and then use the pipelines and canals to transfer it up on the prairie," he says. "It's a 44-foot lift from here to Stuttgart."

Grand Prairie Farming & Water, which began doing business in 2015, supplies water to farmers who cultivate a total of between 15,000 and 20,000 acres. Bogard says the company would like to service another 45,000 acres in the next phase, preserving even more water that otherwise would come from wells.

"For those of us who live in this part of the state, this is our problem to solve," Bogard says. "We're trying to solve it in a responsible manner and in a relatively short period of time. We've never failed to meet a farmer's demand for water. Arkansas is behind only California in the amount of aquifer water we use. We must address that as a state."

Studies have shown that of the world's 37 major aquifer systems, 21 are on the verge of collapse.

The late historian C. Fred Williams ended a history of Arkansas agriculture this way: "In addition to policy regulations, farmers also faced constraints from resource depletion. In many areas of the state, groundwater has been depleted at a rapid rate, and rice farmers in particular face difficult choices between replenishing the aquifer and impounding surface water--or even leaving farming. . . . How the water issue is decided may well determine Arkansas agriculture for the 21st century."

Cotton long dominated Arkansas agriculture. In the years just before and after World War II, farmers began to diversify with rice and soybeans.

"The marginal buckshot soil avoided by traditional cotton farmers was ideal for rice," Williams wrote in his piece for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Also, when federal officials established production controls on cotton in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, some landowners turned to rice.

Rice, which had been grown commercially since the turn of the century, saw a rapid increase in acreage after the 1930s.

"World War II transformed Arkansas agriculture. . . . Cotton had been the state's bellwether crop, but by the end of the war, rice and soybeans quickly won a loyal following. After a few years, most farmers were convinced that the relative ease of producing soybeans made it the crop for the future. Rice, too, because of its greater economic return, found increasing favor in the Delta. Most farmers were willing to make long-term commitments to these crops even though it meant acquiring new equipment. The new equipment came primarily in the form of tractors and improved planting and harvesting machines."

In 1940, there were 153,000 acres of rice and 176,000 acres of soybeans being grown in east Arkansas. Cotton was farmed on 1.2 million east Arkansas acres. Those numbers turned around during the next two decades.

"Rice and soybeans were incorporated into this new order since the same harvester could be used for both crops with only limited modifications," Williams wrote. "A new age in Arkansas agriculture had begun and was reflected in changing land and cropping practices. . . . The crops were aided in part by new technology, which made it possible to drain and dredge swampland."

By the 1970s, the Delta's 4.4 million acres of forestland had been reduced to 1.8 million acres and more than half of the original 7.7 million acres of swampland was in drainage districts. Those new fields of rice and soybeans required enormous amounts of water.

"Every time we turn off another well and use surface water instead, we're helping everybody on the planet," Bogard says.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 10/06/2019

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