Updated water plan important for fish, wildlife

The first scoping meeting to update Arkansas's water management plan was held Tuesday at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.

The last water management plan was updated in 2014. Ryan Benefield, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, moderated the meeting, which established the framework for the updating process. Nothing newsworthy came from the actual meeting, but there was a lot of protein in the breakout discussions that followed.

For example, we all know that that the White River drains North Arkansas and is one of the most important sources of water for agricultural irrigation in East Arkansas. When it floods the bottoms, it also provides vital habitat for migrating waterfowl in Southeast Arkansas, especially in the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

However, there are also artificial watersheds that actually carry White River water the other direction, into the Illinois River in Oklahoma. Indeed, water from Beaver Lake that goes into a toilet, bathtub or kitchen sink in many Northwest Arkansas municipalities enters water treatment facilities. When it leaves the water treatment facility, it is ultra clean. It doesn't go back to Beaver Lake, though. It eventually goes to Lake Tenkiller and then enters the Arkansas River west of Fort Smith.

That water will not irrigate fields near Clarendon, and it doesn't come near the White River National Wildlife Refuge. It does, however, provide wildlife habitat around Lavaca and in Oklahoma's portion of the Arkansas River. It also contributes to a nice little tailwater trout fishery below Tenkiller Dam.

Ultimately, water management is about water allocation, and it's a bit of a devil's bargain as to who gets what share and for what purpose. As a state representative said during the meeting, water allocation is a choice between having something to eat or dying of thirst.

As the population in Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure to tap Beaver Lake even harder for drinking water and industrial water. As Branson and Springfield, Mo., grow, there will be increasing pressure to tap Table Rock Lake harder for drinking water and industrial water.

Although flood control is a primary function of the White River reservoir system, it is conceivable that its flood control responsibility will diminish if the communities in that region divert enough White River water westward in perpetuity.

A longtime political figure in Southeast Arkansas argued that flood control cannot be legally diminished or deprioritized in that system. Legally no, but flowing more water westward could effectively satisfy Beaver Lake's flood control function by merely reducing the lake's water inventory.

Conservationists have noticed for some time that already the White River does not pulse on a traditional schedule. There is a lot of debate about the effect that cold water from the depths of Bull Shoals Lake has on the health of bottomland forests in Southeast Arkansas. There is also a lot of concern about the effect that Dicamba has had on the health of bottomland forests in southeast Arkansas.

It is conceivable that the economic and political muscle of Northwest Arkansas will wrangle an ever increasing allocation of White River water as its population and its financial influence grows and the population of the Delta and its financial influence shrinks. One official noted that a residential water bill in Stuttgart averages more than $200. If a staple like water becomes too expensive, it will force more people to leave the Delta. That means fewer people to advocate for water allocations for daily living, for agriculture, and also for duck hunting and other things that we value.

We mention these things here because, although the state water plan is not enforceable, it is a guide for the legislature and for the courts. We cover hunting and fishing in this space, so we are primarily interested in the plans recreational and conservation facets. Because it matters a lot, the updated water management plan interests us a lot.

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