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Conservation measures could help Sparta recover, study finds
By Rob Moritz

Thursday, Apr 29, 2004
LITTLE ROCK - Officials with the U.S. Geological Survey on Wednesday applauded efforts under way in southern Arkansas to reduce the amount of water consumed from the Sparta aquifer, but they said more needs to be done.

The third in a series of studies by the USGS on the 40,000-square-mile aquifer shows that some parts are being depleted faster than they can be replenished.

The sprawling aquifer is an underground network of pools covering southern and eastern Arkansas, northern Louisiana and western Mississippi.

A study that focuses on southeastern Arkansas and northern Louisiana found that withdrawals by agriculture, industrial and municipal users in Jefferson and Union counties are said to be the Sparta's main culprits.

The study found that the aquifer's level would recover rapidly by removing just industrial users in Pine Bluff and El Dorado.

Under Pine Bluff, it would rise as much as 129 feet by 2007, and as much as 165 feet under El Dorado, said John Czarnecki, a groundwater specialist with the USGS.

The Sparta, located between 500 and 1,100 feet below the surface, has dropped more than a foot each year for more than a decade.

If nothing is done, its water levels near Pine Bluff could decrease an additional 10 to 30 feet, and 10 to 20 feet around El Dorado by 2027.

Czarnecki praised conservation projects in Columbia and Union County, but he and other USGS officials said they were not aware of any long-term measure being implemented in Jefferson County.

Jack Jones, Jefferson County judge, said plans are being developed.

"The community here is very much aware of the possibility of having a shortage of water and we are looking at alternatives," Jones said Wednesday afternoon.

He said several organizations and groups in Jefferson County and southeast Arkansas are looking at ways to construct more above groundwater holding facilities and possibly diverting water from the Arkansas River.

He said International Paper Co., which uses about 30 million gallons of water a day from the Sparta, continues to study the possibility of building a channel from the Arkansas River. The paper company is also looking at recycling the water it uses, Jones said.

"We know there is a cone of depression under Pine Bluff and Jefferson County," he said.

The Economic Development Alliance also is working to address the issue, he said. Jim Crider, president and CEO of that organization, was out of town Wednesday.

"As time goes by in southeast Arkansas you are going to see things happening in trying to use river water and surface water," he said.

Wednesday's USGS report is the third conducted on the aquifer system in Arkansas.

A report in December found that portions of the shallow Alluvial aquifer, which is used by farmers in eastern Arkansas, could dry up within 10 years. A second study, released earlier this year, found some sections of that aquifer in southeast Arkansas also could dry up soon.

Todd Fugitt, a geology supervisor in the groundwater section of the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission, said Wednesday's report on the Sparta wasn't a big surprise.

"We are seeing significant water level declines," Fugitt said. "We're pumping at a rate that is not sustainable."

Fugitt said five counties in southern Arkansas -Columbia, Union, Ouachita, Calhoun and Bradley - have already been designated as "critical groundwater areas."

In Union County, voters passed a 1 cent sales tax increase in 2002 to help pay for a $45 million pipeline from the Ouachita River to the county's four largest industries, who now rely heavily on the Sparta.

The project will significantly reduce the amount of water being drained from the Sparta, Czarnecki said.

In Columbia County, several above-ground reservoirs were built that now are used to store drinking water.
© Arkansas News Bureau www.arkansasnews.com 2004
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