Buffalo River panel told of $5M in federal funding to aid water quality
by Joseph Flaherty | April 30, 2020 at 3:25 a.m.
"Just because of the coronavirus and its impact across the board on putting a lot of things on hold, we just wanted to reassure everybody that we would continue to move forward with the efforts," Ward said.
Meeting by way of a conference call, officials on the committee discussed the potential for improvements to unpaved roads and wastewater systems near the Buffalo River.
Hutchinson created the committee in September after a drawn-out fight between conservationists and the owners of a hog farm in the watershed. C&H Hog Farms ultimately closed in January in a buyout deal with the state.
Ward described two recent federal grants related to improving the watershed that have been announced since the Buffalo River committee's last meeting in February.
In late February, federal agencies said they will work to improve water quality in Northwest Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma using $2.37 million in funding to the Ozark-Ouachita region during fiscal year 2020.
The planned work relating to fishing, tourism and wildfire mitigation will take place in six regional watersheds as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Joint Chiefs' Landscape Restoration Partnership.
On April 16, the USDA announced that the Buffalo River Watershed Enhancement Project, led by the department's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Nature Conservancy, will receive close to $2.7 million.
The project aims to collaborate with landowners in the watershed on conservation practices to improve water quality.
Ward called them "two very positive announcements" and emphasized that the federal programs are voluntary for landowners.
"Nothing's being forced on anybody," he said.
Brent Clark, an official with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Buffalo River communities in Searcy and Newton counties will have "exciting" opportunities on the horizon because of the funding. Information on how to sign up and how funding will be distributed is expected shortly, Clark said.
Other officials described where their work stands regarding unpaved roads and wastewater in the Buffalo River watershed.
Tony Ramick, an Agriculture Department division manager for nonpoint source management and unpaved road programs, said he was in the Buffalo River watershed Wednesday meeting with officials to view unpaved road sites in Searcy and Newton counties.
Ramick said they are exploring cost estimates, which the hope can be presented to the committee in the coming weeks.
Unpaved roads can contribute to reduced water quality because of sediment runoff, as well as airborne dust in rural communities, according to the Agriculture Department.
Debby Dickson, program fiscal manager at the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Division, told the committee that they expect to receive funding applications from two communities in the watershed related to wastewater improvement.
She said the state already has received a funding application from Marble Falls and she expects to receive another by the end of the week from Jasper.
Dickson added there is ongoing discussion about a septic tank remediation pilot program that might be available in the watershed as well.
Some 1 million to 2 million people visit the Buffalo National River annually, but for now the river is closed for recreational purposes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Caleb Osborne, chief of staff at the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, told committee members that the department has been "kind of overwhelmed" because of the coronavirus outbreak, but he said the virus has "reiterated just how important tourism is to the state and how important it is to our communities."
The National Park Service closed the river to all visitors except residential and through traffic on April 2 because of the outbreak. The park was closed one day after Hutchinson expressed concern about out-of-state visitors going to the scenic waterway from areas where the coronavirus is more widespread.
During Wednesday's meeting, Becky Keogh, the secretary of the state Department of Energy and Environment, said the department is considering U.S. Department of Energy opportunities or other federal funds that could support farmers with the deployment of solar energy or similar low-cost options.
However, a potential grant request has not been finalized, Keogh said.
She said Arkansas' federal partners are interested in the Buffalo River efforts happening at the state level.
"They like the leadership the state's taken," Keogh said.
Federal officials are trying to defer their regulatory authority and "let the state work through these solutions, because they're more effective generally anyway," she added.
Metro on 04/30/2020