NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Importing Water to Arkansas

November 11, 2002

Rice farmers in Arkansas are on the brink of draining one of the state's biggest aquifers dry. And most of the farmers want the federal government to spend more than $200 million on a project to provide replacement water from the White River.

It is time, they say, for the federal government to start doing in Arkansas what it has long been doing in the West -- provide irrigation water to farmers. But what kind of precedent would that set for farmers in other states, critics ask?

  • The project, under the Army Corps of Engineers, would cost the equivalent of $300,000 per farmer.
  • Until now, the mission of the corps has been limited to navigation and flood control -- not irrigation -- and critics say it should stay that way.
  • As it is, the state already gets over 50 inches of rain a year and if the rice farmers have depleted their water supplies critics say replacing it shouldn't be the responsibility of federal taxpayers -- who already subsidize rice heavily.
  • Critics of the project point out that rice farmers have known since 1940 that they had a problem with the aquifer -- but continued to overpump it anyway.

The total cost of the proposed plan is estimated at $319 million -- with the federal government paying 65 percent of that.

Underground water accounts for about 22 percent of American water use and in many areas -- including much of the Great Plains, coastal Florida and North Carolina and the Mississippi Delta -- it is being depleted.

Neither Congress nor the Bush administration has made a final decision about the plan.

Source: Douglas Jehl, "Arkansas Rice Farmers Run Dry, and U.S. Remedy Sets Off Debate," New York Times, November 11, 2002.

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