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State lawmakers stymie $1M for projects in watershed - Democrat Gazette

19 Oct 2019 8:31 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

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State lawmakers stymie $1M for projects in watershed

by John Moritz | Today at 8:56 a.m.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's request to transfer $1 million from state surplus money to fund conservation projects and grants within the Buffalo River Watershed was held up by lawmakers Friday, amid lingering frustrations over the closure of a hog farm near the river.

Many of the concerns voiced by lawmakers who represent areas along the river dealt with the question of which stakeholders would be given input on the projects.

In September, Hutchinson created the Buffalo River Conservation Committee to direct grants and projects in the watershed. The move came after the state's $6.2 million buyout of C&H Hog Farms this summer, bringing a close to the farm's controversial existence within the watershed.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, made the motion at Friday's Legislative Council meeting to withhold governor "rainy day" funds from the newly formed committee, accusing the governor's office of not meeting with local officials before requesting the money.

Members of the committee, she feared, could include landowners from the four-county area around the river who do not necessarily live in the region.

"Y'all single-handedly did this without discussing it with any of us who are elected to represent this area to work through these issues with our constituents, with the Buffalo National River," Irvin said. "We have been through so much on this issue, and we have tried so hard to work through it. It is incredibly disrespectful, it is ridiculous that this happened the way it happened."

By a voice vote, the council approved Irvin's motion to withhold the money until the governor's office and state officials meet with elected representatives from the watershed.

In a statement Friday, the governor said the failure to approve the transfer of rainy day funds could further jeopardize an additional $1 million in private funds pledged by the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.

"The failure to approve the appropriation today will delay this money being available to farmers," Hutchinson said. "But I do hope the Legislature will return soon to approve the funding."

In an Oct. 1 letter to the chairmen of the Legislative Council, Hutchinson wrote that the rainy day funds would be used to support projects "including but not limited to the following -- voluntary best management practices for farmers and land owners, improvements to wastewater and septic systems for cities and counties within the watershed, and reduction of sediment runoff from unpaved roads within the watershed."

The wording of that letter -- specifically the phrase "but not limited to" -- drew concerns from several lawmakers, including Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.

"That's way too broad for what I think this body's supposed to do as far as oversight," Hickey said.

Rice raised similar concerns earlier in the week, when he said the circumstances of C&H Hog Farms' closure had caused misgivings to ripple through the communities of small- and medium-sized farmers.

The hog farm, which opened in 2013 and held thousands of hogs, prompted push-back over the years from environmental groups concerned about the possibility of manure polluting the river. Although the Buffalo River was found to be impaired by E. coli, no government agency had traced the bacteria back to the farm.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality ordered the farm to close last year, before Hutchinson agreed to the buyout with the farm's owners this summer.

"Our small farms, animal farms, are concerned," Rice said. "Just concerns from the accumulation of events, on the rate change, extensive oversight and testing without violations, the accusations without factual substance, is enough in cost and aggravation to push some of our small farmers out of business or even to keep them from even going into business."

State Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward attempted to alleviate the concerns raised by Rice and other lawmakers Friday, saying that landowners would not be required to participate in projects funded by the $1 million transfer. The Department of Agriculture will hold onto the money from the rainy day fund until it is approved for projects by the conservation committee, according to the governor's letter.

Keeping the scope of the projects open-ended will allow local landowners to decide the best use for the money, Ward said.

"If I was to write down a list of things that the money would be used for, that would be in effect, Little Rock saying, 'Here's what you're going to do in this area," Ward said. "We're going to let the landowners identify what's important and what's not important."

The governor's office said Friday that the members of subcommittees of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee had not yet been appointed.

Full committee members include Ward; Energy and Environment Secretary Becky Keogh; Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst; and Health Secretary Nathaniel Smith.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and Emily Walkenhorst of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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