Northwest Arkansas resident survey prioritizes water, roads, recycling

4,000 answer council queries

Magan Osburn, a driver, drives a Bobcat skid steer Friday, June 11, 2021, to distribute cardboard at the Material Recovery Facility for the Recycling and Trash Collection Division for the city. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)
Magan Osburn, a driver, drives a Bobcat skid steer Friday, June 11, 2021, to distribute cardboard at the Material Recovery Facility for the Recycling and Trash Collection Division for the city. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Northwest Arkansas residents who responded to a survey about the region's infrastructure gave waterways, roads and recycling as their priorities.

More than 4,000 people responded to the survey by the Northwest Arkansas Council, a group of business and civic leaders. The survey was conducted Feb. 15 to March 25 and will be used by the council's Infrastructure Work Group, which was re-established earlier this year, according to a news release.

The work group will focus on helping local governments and businesses tap into federal money made available by the passage last year of the more than $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, according to the council.

The Northwest Arkansas Council has focused on water quality and quantity, highways, public transportation and supporting the Northwest Arkansas National Airport. But the group will work to identify and pursue grants for such projects as electric vehicle charging stations, broadband expansion and recycling, because there's so much federal funding available in these new areas, according to the news release.

"The survey confirmed many things we believed to be true, but also provided some surprising insights," said Nelson Peacock, the council's president and CEO.

For example, the survey asked people if they'd be willing to pay more for drinking water if they knew additional money would go toward the long-term protection of the region's rivers and lakes, Peacock said. In all, 65% of the 3,931 residents who answered that question said they would pay more, he said.

Beaver Lake and the streams that feed it provide drinking water for the vast majority of residents in the region, according to Beaver Water District officials. The water district was established in 1957 and supplies wholesale drinking water to the cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville. Those cities pump, store, distribute and resell the water to more than 400,000 customers.

Protection plan

Lane Crider, CEO at Beaver Water, said the survey results confirm education and outreach efforts by the district and its partners are getting through, taking root and creating awareness among the public.

"It's a wonderful affirmation that our message is being received and that the citizens of Northwest Arkansas, they realize how vitally important maintaining this watershed and this drinking water source is," Crider said. "That reservoir is certainly the golden egg, or the goose, depending on how you look at it."

Crider said being a couple of generations removed from the creation of the lake and the water district makes it easier to take plentiful, clean water for granted.

In 2016, the water district board of directors voted to contribute four cents per every thousand gallons of water sold to a long-term Source Water Protection Plan that began in 2010.

Sediment and nutrient transport to Beaver Lake have been identified as the most significant contaminants to the water supply. Beaver Water and its partners have been working for years on projects to implement agricultural best practices and restore stream banks, particularly along the West Fork of the White River.

Crider said increasing water sales have contributed to more money being available in the protection fund, but it hasn't kept pace with increasing costs and inflation.

"The costs of these programs for source water protection, for stream bank restoration, all that has gone up proportionally, especially recently with the cost of land, the cost of materials and the labor to finish some of these projects," Crider said. "We see it as an opportunity to initiate that discussion about increasing, potentially, the allocation to the Source Water Protection Fund."

Working for the watershed

The Beaver Watershed Alliance was formed in 2011 to maintain high-quality drinking water in Beaver Lake and improve water quality in its watershed. The alliance represents a diverse stakeholder group from conservation, education, water utilities, technical and science, business, agriculture, recreation, and local government groups.

"Excellent news," said Becky Roark, executive director. "What we found really positive is that people are willing to take care of their source water supply, which is Beaver Lake."

Roark said the alliance works directly with landowners to implement voluntary measures to reduce sediment and conducts public education and outreach to all kinds of groups.

"When people support groups like ours, that helps us make an impact out there on the land," she said.

The alliance works with other groups such as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, she said. Those efforts do take money, Roark said.

"We're excited that there's some opportunity out there to seek some additional funding to advance water quality here in Northwest Arkansas," she said. "We're developing so quickly here, and now is the time to get ahead of the game."

Highways and byways

As for highways, respondents were asked to rank four projects in order of importance to them.

Completing the U.S. 412 Springdale Northern Bypass was the highest priority for most, 40.8%. Completing the widening and improvements to Arkansas 112 between Bentonville and Fayetteville was second for most respondents, 32.5%. Those two projects also received the highest cumulative scores.

About 17% picked extending a four-lane highway from the Bella Vista Bypass at Gravette south, around the west side of Northwest National and connecting to U.S. 412, as their highest priority. And completing improvements to U.S. 412 between Siloam Springs and Springdale so it can eventually become an interstate highway was ranked the highest priority by about 10% of those responding.

Accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians -- such as bike lanes and shared-use paths -- should accompany new roadway projects, according to 74% of respondents.

According to the council, 50% of respondents were men and 45% women, while 3% declined to answer and 2% checked the nonbinary box.

About 34% were from Rogers and Bentonville and 34% from Fayetteville and Springdale; another 27% were from the region's smaller cities and towns and about 6% live outside Benton and Washington counties.

Household income ranged from 41% who reported making $60,000 to $120,000 per year to 18% who reported more than $180,000 annually; 18% said they make $120,000 to $180,000 a year and 23% said they make less than $60,000 per year.

Here are some other survey findings:

• Four out of five respondents, 78%, expressed a willingness to recycle more, waste less and learn about their local recycling program; however, 61% said knowing what their city's recycling program accepts is confusing.

• Most respondents, 80%, said they believe the region will need more public transportation/buses in the future and 61% said they'd support more on-demand bus service. But, only 48% said they see themselves as riders if the system becomes more convenient and 49% said they would support a sales tax to provide more buses and expand hours of service.

• Most, 83%, said broadband services should be available to everyone, including people who live far from cities.

• Four out of every five respondents, 81%, see themselves as eventually owning an electric vehicle. Range anxiety, initial cost and charging time were cited as headwinds.