I recently toured several farms near Stuttgart, Ark. with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner, state officials and conservationists. We met farmers working to clean and conserve water using conservation efforts, including the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The tour provided me and my colleagues from Washington, D.C. and almost a dozen states an opportunity to see firsthand how voluntary, incentive-conservation practices are helping Arkansas farmers maintain productivity while protecting wildlife habitat and improving water quality and water use efficiency.
On Terry Dabbs’ Discovery Farm, we heard how the combination of conservation practices results in better water quality. As Dabbs said, if he is contributing to poor water quality downstream and in the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, he wants to know about it and fix it.
The good news is that his use of a tailwater recovery system has dramatically reduced the loss of nutrients from his field. Better yet, he recycles these nutrients back on his fields, saving input costs and overcoming a lack of groundwater to irrigate his rice and soybean fields. It’s a win-win.
His tailwater recovery system consists of irrigation storage reservoirs, water control structures, tailwater recovery pits and pumping plants. University of Arkansas professor Mike Daniels told us about how Dabbs’ irrigation water management on land-leveled fields makes his rice fields perform similar to constructed wetlands and reduce runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous to negligible amounts.
We also visited Hollowell Reservoir at Bayou Meto and heard from George Dunklin, president of Ducks Unlimited. Dunklin discussed how restoring bottomland hardwood forest ecosystems has led to significant improvements in water quality, water quantity and wildlife benefits on his operation.
He has converted several previously land-leveled fields to wetland areas by creating swales and planting trees. Wetlands store water, help clean it and provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife including migrating waterfowl.
On our final stop, rice and soybean grower Lane Oliver discussed how irrigation water management practices are lowering input costs and enhancing his farm’s productivity. He has implemented an irrigation delivery and tailwater recovery system.
Oliver’s system reduces water use by delivering the right amount of water resulting in fewer nutrients and sediment being transported into local waterways. Other practices he employs include irrigation pipelines, nutrient management and irrigation storage reservoirs.
Irrigating with surface water is a huge savings of energy and diesel costs. On average, $25 per acre foot is saved by pumping surface water over groundwater in Arkansas. He now has the ability to capture enough runoff to irrigate his 1,200 acres of rice and soybeans.
The next day, I participated in the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force meeting in Little Rock, Ark. Commonly referred to as the “Hypoxia Task Force” the group is composed of federal and state officials working together to address water quality problems in the Mississippi River basin and Gulf of Mexico region.
The farmers who we met the previous day provided great examples of how good agricultural stewardship can have a dramatic impact on clean water in addition to helping Arkansas’ farms prosper. They made a strong case that the farmers in the Arkansas Delta are part of the solution.