Arkansas farmers watch wells go dry

Under the groaning call of the great blue heron and the constant throbbing of farm equipment, green crops can almost be heard growing out of the fertile ground in the humid climate. Most rice in the United States is grown here in Lonoke County, Ark. Eighty percent of all US commercial fish farming is located here as well. These two very nontraditional crops are unique in agriculture because of the vast quantities of water involved in their production.

But farmers here have been living on borrowed time since the early part of this century. Their entire economy is in danger.

Aquifers in Arkansas and five surrounding states are in danger of going dry.

The subterranean water also irrigates traditional crops like soybeans, wheat, and milo. But as demand on the aquifers has increased, the underground water supply has diminished. And farmers are worried.

Both rice and fish require more than three surface feet of water every season to produce a harvest. In a normal year, the overall level is pulled down about one foot. Drought years like this year, though, force farmers to pump much more heavily.

``You have a year like 1980, when we had a severe drought. That rate of decrease in the water table was fivefold what it normally is,'' says Pat Bass of the US Soil Conservation Service in Little Rock, Ark. ``And again in '83, we had a similar situation, not just confined to the state of Arkansas. The principal aquifer we draw from ... extends to some other states like Missouri, down into Louisiana, and across the Mississippi.''

Bill Fletcher farms rice, soybeans, and minnows on different parts of his 1,800-acre farm here. He relies on the aquifer and had to pump water earlier than usual this year when the soil didn't have even enough moisture to plant in. So far this summer Mr. Fletcher has already watched five of his 12wells go dry.

Water pumps sit on flat concrete pads like giant diesel mosquitos capable of sucking over 3,000 gallons of water an hour from deep below the ground. At that rate, Fletcher says, the aquifer will dry up. He says farmers shouldn't have to rely so heavily on their underground water supply.

``There is enough water that runs through this state to irrigate every inch of land if we could just ... figure out how to move it to the right place,'' he says. ``It costs a lot of money, but it can be done and it needs to be done now because after we run out of underground water it's going to be too late. We need to save that stuff.''

As serious as the problem is, there are solutions. The Soil and Conservation Service has a number of ways to slow dependency on underground water. Some of the conservation is just a matter of reusing the water already pumped from the ground that farmers have grown a crop with, rather than releasing it into rivers and streams. But beyond that, farmers say, reservoirs need to be constructed to hold the 48 to 55 inches of rain Arkansas gets every year. Farmers actually prefer trapped surface water to ground water because of the rich sediment surface water contains.

Getting the federal funds to assist in long-term conservation projects hasn't been an easy job. Neil Anderson serves on the Arkansas Soil Conservation Board and operates the largest minnow farming operation in the world.

``Our whole objective is to convince the federal government, state agencies, and the farmers to use above-ground water storage,'' he says. ``When these heavy rains come in the fall and the winter and the springtime, we should catch that water and store it.''

So far there's been no legislation to compensate farmers whose wells have gone dry. Nor are there programs to encourage farmers to invest in conservation. Mr. Anderson's favorite argument involves the government practice of paying farmers to leave their land out of production.

``I'd rather see the federal government pay them to use the land for water storage'' than to just see farmers take it out of production, Anderson says. ``I mean if they are going to pay you, they are going to pay you, so make it conservation-minded.''

Farmers worry that lawmakers don't understand the magnitude of their problem, especially when they see that plenty of water is still being pumped from the ground. But the farmers say while things look good on the surface, the underground reservoir is slowly running dry.

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