Sunday, September 15, 2013

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXXI): Lawmakers celebrate rural water system to serve 20K residents, debate federal stimulus that funded it

A $ 72 million infrastructure project to supply water to some 20,000 homes in rural Northwest Arkansas became operational earlier this month.  The system, with a intake plant and treatment structure at Bull Shoals Lake, 120 miles of pipeline and six storage tanks, will serve Boone, Newton and Searcy counties.  The plant can treat 4.5 million gallons of water/day, using 1- 1.5 million gallons/day.  The system will provide water to 18 small, rural water associations, which have not had a reliable supply of water over the years.  A party celebrating the plant's opening was held Sept. 3, with many dignitaries in attendance, including Governor Mike Beebe, U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, and U.S. Congressman for Arkansas's third district, Steve Womack.  Womack praised his predecessor, Marion Berry, Democrat, who was serving on the House Appropriations Committee when the project was funded.  Womack also spoke of the "smart, visionary leaders" who navigated the bureaucracy to fund and build the system.
You may have had a shortage of safe drinking water over the last several years, but you've had a very abundant supply of leadership that has made this day possible.
Womack, a second-term Republican who was previously the mayor of booming Rogers, Arkansas, (population 55,964) admitted that he has tended to take the availability of clean water for granted.  He also observed that the new water system is likely to "improve property values, enhance economic development, provide for job creation, but most of all improve the life of so many people."

The water system is touted in a separate front-page headline of the Sept. 4, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times as the 500th stimulus project completed.  This is especially ironic since the area's voters are quite conservative and generally opposed to federal government spending--or any government spending--for that matter.  Indeed, in yet another headline, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, says he is "tired of hypocrites complaining about federal programs"--that being the stimulus.  The Newton County Times, in a story written by Dwain Lair, quotes Beebe at length:
A lot of things we disagree with on both the state and federal levels.  There is a lot of griping and complaining about policies of this government.  A lot of people are disappointed, and I join them to gripe and complain about things I think are stupid. One of the things I think all of us abhor is hypocrisy. I can't stand hypocrisy.  If you're against something, stand up there and say it.  Don't talk out of one side of of your mouth, and don't take credit for something you've been publicly talking against.  I'm not talking about any people here specifically.  
Yeah, I'd have done things differently with the stimulus.  I would have spent more on roads ... a greater portion on capital projects that put people to work, like this project, and that actually benefit people.  I'm going to tell you something, we were in a mess.  This country was in the worst recession of my lifetime.  I didn't vote for or against any of that stuff.  I wasn't up there.  But I would be the biggest hypocrite in the world if I blasted everything they did about the stimulus and congratulate one of the stimulus projects to help 20,000 Arkansans and put all those people to work.   
And the folks who gripe and complain and bellyache about stimulus aren't turning the tap to drink any of this water.  Because if it wasn't for the stimulus, you wouldn't be getting any of this water.  
Let's call it like it is.  Argue about what we need to argue about, but let's don't be hypocrites.  Congratulations...
Now that sounds like calling a spade a spade ...

The new water system will be managed by the Ozark Mountain Regional Public Water Authority Board. Its funding came from myriad sources, which I list here in the order in which the Newton County Times listed them, with the smaller pool of state funds listed before the federal amount, which was about 6.5 times as great:
  • Arkansas Natural Resources Commission:  $9.2 million
  • USDA Rural Development Grant:  $62.7 million
  • EPA Grant:  $572,000
  • Arvest Bank Grant:  $5000
  • Southshore Foundation:  $8000
  • Progressive Solutions:  $2,500
Association members are

Buffalo National River Water
Deer Community Water
Diamond City Water
East Newton County Water
Lake Bull Shoals Estates
Lead Hill
Mockingbird Hill Water
Morning Star Water
Mt. Sherman Water
Nail-Swain Water

An editorial in the September 4 issue of the paper provides a bit of background on the Ozark Mountain Regional Water Authority.  Under the headline, "A case where stimulus worked," editor Jeff Dezort notes the "short time it took from start to finish" to supply the districts, who first began meeting about their common problems in 2004.
Radon, radium, excessive amounts of flouride and other harsh chemicals found in well water had become too costly for water associations to remove, and they were facing steep penalties for not providing healthy water to their customers. 
The water table that fed the associations' wells was also dropping and during dry spells water storage tanks could not be filled fast enough to meet the demand for water.  Boil water orders and conservation protocols were often and long. 
Water operators felt that instead of fining the water associations, the state should help them find new ample sources of quality water and help build a reliable delivery system. 
Though the system was expected to take 20 years to build, it was accomplished in less than a decade thanks to funding from the American Recovery Act.

Over the six years I have been blogging here, I have written on various occasions about the travails, e.g., boil orders, shortages, of many of these water associations.  Read posts here and here.  Indeed, last spring the Mockingbird Hill Water Association was experiencing such dire water problems that a local attraction, The Cliff House Restaurant, overlooking "Arkansas's Grand Canyon" (and the valley where my mother grew up), didn't have any water to serve its customers.  Talk about putting a damper on business.  Last year, water had to be trucked in to supply the county fair. Happily, those days, it seems, are over.

Meanwhile, the August 21, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times reports that the East Newton County Water Authority raised its rates in a vote on August 12, just two months after it started receiving water from the Regional Authority.  A member of the East Newton County Board is quoted:
It was impossible to make the total payments to Ozark Mountain Regional for the water supply plus loan payments to USDA-Rural Development and expenses of operating and maintenance under the present rate system.  
Oddly, the Board elected not to announce the new rate structure to the public.

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