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By JOHN WORTHEN , El Dorado News-Times
UCWCB, partners recognized for efforts to preserve aquifer
The U.S. Department of the Interior has recognized the Union County Water Conservation Board, along with their partners, for efforts to preserve the Sparta Aquifer over the past decade. A small delegation from south Arkansas is in Washington, D.C., this week to accept the 2008 Cooperative Conservation Award.

According to the DOI, the award recognizes cooperative conservation achievements that involve work between federal, state and local governments, as well as private for profit and nonprofit institutions, other non-governmental entities and individuals.

The U.S. Geological Survey nominated the partnership for the award and was part of the UCWCB's federally funded study to monitor Sparta Aquifer recovery.

In an e-mail to the News-Times on Monday, Sherrel Johnson, grants administrator for the UCWCB, said the award shines a positive light on the people of Union County and our ability to bring together diverse public and private stakeholders to solve a problem that threatened the county's economic well-being.

Johnson is in Washington, D.C., with UCWCB president Rob Reynolds, as well as others from south Arkansas who were part of the Sparta project.

The story behind the award dates back to the mid 1990s. Then, geologists were worried that Arkansas' deepest water source, the Sparta Aquifer, might soon run dry if consumption rates continued or were increased.

Groundwater levels had declined more than 360 feet in some areas, prompting concern from citizens and government officials alike.

For years, the alluvial aquifer had acted as a giant underground sponge beneath the earth's surface, supplying water to almost one million people in south Arkansas and northern Louisiana.

Because it provided cool clean water, the Sparta was an excellent source of irrigation for many industrial, agricultural and recreational purposes -- but it was literally being wrung dry.

By August 1998, a hydrologist from the USGS declared the El Dorado area had "10 years or less" to draft a conservation plan to keep the aquifer from being depleted beyond renewal.

In 1999, geologists announced that Sparta Aquifer withdrawals in Union County would need to be reduced to about 28 percent of the 1997 withdrawal rate of about 21 million gallons per day.

The Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission immediately declared Union, Columbia and Ouachita counties among the first in the state as "critical groundwater areas."

By 1999, the Arkansas Legislature weighed in with the creation of Act, 1050, which organized groundwater conservation boards like the UCWCB to monitor local water supplies.

Dozens of meetings were held in Union County between 1999 and 2000, as local officials scrambled to figure out a plan to save the water supply here.

Reynolds recounted the events last year in a speech to members of the Louisiana Sparta Commission. "We were like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker," Reynolds quipped. "We formed the water conservation board, and we were chemical engineers, county officials, an insurance guy and a retired teacher. We had never done this before, but we knew that we had to come up with something."

That "something" came when a major company announced plans to build a giant electric power facility in the heart of Union County. Officials at Union Power Station knew they would need lots of water to fuel their mammoth 2,200 mega-watt-capable power plant, so the company agreed to build a river water treatment facility twice the capacity that they would use.

This allowed other local industries to tie into the pipeline and stop siphoning from the fast-depleting aquifer. "There was an opportunity there and we took it," Reynolds said. "There was a little bit of luck involved, but also a lot of hard, time consuming work."

Union County residents agreed to finance the $45-million pipeline project in an effort to help save their aquifer; soon after, Chemtura (formerly Great Lakes Chemical), El Dorado Chemical, Lion Oil and the Union Power Station began using the river pipeline to supply water to their plants.

Each plant agreed to pay 56 cents per thousand gallons of water used.

Sparta Aquifer levels began correcting themselves almost immediately after the pipeline was activated. Before the pipeline, the Sparta Aquifer was Union County's only source of industrial ground water.

Continuing conservation efforts have reduced the Union County Sparta Aquifer withdrawals by approximately 7.5 million gallons per day, and the UCWCB announced recently that water levels have risen in wells.

According to the UCWCB, the Sparta Aquifer in south Arkansas and north Louisiana is the only groundwater source in the country showing recovery. Wells in Union County, south Arkansas, and north Louisiana are rising for the first time in 60 years, one as much as 49 feet.

With current reductions in Sparta Aquifer ground-water withdrawals, ground-water levels in the eight USGA monitoring wells have risen 2-to-49-feet since the Fall of 2004, according to information from the UCWCB.

The UCCB's Mission Statement is: The guiding purpose and primary objective of the Union County Water Conservation Board is to conserve, protect and maintain the Sparta Formation Aquifer as a continuing source of high quality, potable water for current and future consumers by providing for affordable, alternate sources of fresh water pursuant to the authority and responsibility granted by the State of Arkansas.
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