Arkansas governor orders updated plan to guide water policy, investment

 Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has ordered a review of the Arkansas Water Plan, which directs water policy and infrastructure decisions. | U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service/Flickr

Arkansas environmental officials will spend the next year updating the state’s plan meant to direct policy on a range of water policy issues, from flood management to drinking water quality and farm irrigation

By HUNTER FIELD | Arkansas Advocate

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Monday executive order calls for the fourth iteration of the Arkansas Water Plan. It comes as aging infrastructure has led to drinking water shortagesconcerns of levee breaches and a dwindling supply of groundwater.

Sanders’ order notes “the most recent Arkansas Water Plan was completed nearly a decade ago and there is urgent need to update the Plan in order to meet the changing needs of communities — large and small — across this state. Aging infrastructure and population change across the state have impacted drinking water, stormwater, sanitation capabilities, and other needs…

“A comprehensive strategy, to include an updated Arkansas Water Plan, is necessary to address water demand projections, aging infrastructure, supply depletion, and flood mitigation capabilities by incorporating the most recent science and data.”

The state Water Plan is an arcane bureaucratic document intended to direct state water policy and make recommendations to the Arkansas General Assembly.

The first plan was published in 1975. It was updated in 1990 and most recently in 2014.

The 2014 update was intended to guide state leaders through 2050, when it predicted Arkansas would see a 14% increase in water demand. The report focused on issues that remain at the forefront of Arkansas’ water issues: deteriorating infrastructure, depleted groundwater stores and the need for proactive management.

The plan weighs the varying, and sometimes conflicting, interests of farmers, the industrial sector and the environment, but its foremost focus is on drinking water.

“Within a few months of taking office, Governor Sanders directed her administration to begin preparations for this Executive Order with the long-term goal to protect and conserve the state’s water resources, as well as ensure Arkansans always have access to safe, clean drinking water,” Sanders’ communications director, Alexa Henning, said. “As Arkansas’ population changes and grows and our existing infrastructure ages, the need for this comprehensive plan will only increase.”

Sanders directed the new plan to be completed in two phases by Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward and Natural Resources Division Director Chris Colclasure. The first stage should be done within the next 365 days.

Phase I’s purpose is to determine significant changes that need to be made to the 2014 document, and a work plan, schedule and estimated cost is due to the governor within the year. 

Phase II will be based on the findings of the first phase “and shall include needed updates to reflect the current demands, forecasts, supply, availability, and quality of surface and groundwater; a resilience assessment; regional and basin level water management strategies; local project and program assessments; focus basins identification and solutions; a structural analysis of flood mitigation infrastructure and proposed solutions; and a comprehensive analysis of water management policies.”

A status report on Phase II is due to Sanders by the end of 2024. The executive order directs both phases to include significant stakeholder engagement.

Arkansas hasn’t seen as dramatic an increase in average temperature in recent decades as other states (The Natural State’s average temperature has risen by about 1 degree Farenheit since 1975). However, Arkansas has seen its weather patterns move to the extremes — historic winter storms, unprecedented flooding and droughts.

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