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Bayou Meto project sees possible shut off

After more than 60 years of planning, investment of about $90 million and months of construction, the Bayou Meto Water Management Project is looking at the possibility of having to turn off the nearly completed pumping stations.

If the current Senate funding plan is not adopted, then the project will have to look at how it will shut down, project manager Gene Sullivan told Congressman Rick Crawford at a meeting Thursday. The other options “on the table” leave the project without funds to continue.

Crawford met with the Bayou Meto Water Management District board directors to discuss the finances of the project.

Sullivan explained the aspects of the project as aquifer protection, floodwater management, wetlands protection, agricultural water supply, and waterfowl management. The wide scope of the project is likely the reason it has not met the opposition faced in similar projects, he said.

Other problems, such as convincing the Army Corps of Engineers of the need to be involved in groundwater management, that it is a major environmental mission for the Corps, have been overcome, Sullivan said.

“There is just one small [problem] left … that we need help with – and that is money,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said there has been about $90 million spent on the construction to this point. Both pump stations are set to be completed in a few months. While there is as yet no electricity to either pump station, there is about $9.7 million available to finish that part, Sullivan said.

Non-federal funds are being managed, but the large problem is federal funds, to ensure operating costs are met,Sullivan said.

“We’ve realized that we are not going to get the federal funds to build this project in a timely manner,” Sullivan said. The plan now is to concentrate on the main system by relying on the Corps of Engineers, and use other funds, such as a loan from USDA, to work on the secondary system to bring some water to the farmers, he said.

Everything hinges on intricacies of funding that must be done before Oct. 1, Sullivan said. After that, it is likely interest rate on the loan will increase, and even one percent means adding more than $200,000 a year in interest – increasing the charge per acre-foot of water, he said.

If the Senate version of the funding plan prevails there will be sufficient funding to continue, although not at the preferred level, Sullivan said.

However, if the current House plan prevails, “We’ll be looking at ways to shut down the pumping plant,” Sullivan said.

The goal is to get water into the Bayou Meto Basin as soon as possible, Sullivan said. Farmers in the Bayou Meto Water Improvement District have been paying taxes for eight years, “and haven’t gotten anything as far as the project is concerned,” he said.

Crawford noted number of measures to consider, but that a continuing resolution could provide enough funding to continue through this fiscal year until stronger language could be included in a funding plan.

“Not a heck of a lot, but it keeps you from having to mothball your pumping stations,” he said.

Crawford also said he would see if there is a means of expediting the USDA loan to avoid the higher interest rate.

The Bayou Meto Basin covers Lonoke, Prairie and Jefferson counties. The water project would add Arkansas River water to the basin during dry periods, and would remove water during flooding.

The system would use four pump stations with about 100 miles of new canals, 140 miles of existing ditches and nearly 500 miles of pipelines with the natural stream to manage the water.

Part of the reason for the project is to supplement groundwater for irrigation to prevent irreversible damage to the alluvial aquifer the underlies most of the Grand Prairie.

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