- FLOATING THE FOURCHE: Audobon intern kayaks through the bottomland.
It's been floating around for 12 years, but a final environmental impact statement that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to purchase bottomlands in the Fourche Creek basin for protection and recreation is on its way to Washington.
The next step: Persuading the Corps (or the Congress) to fund the acquisition of 1,750 acres and pay for “nature appreciation facilities” along the bottoms in Southwest Little Rock. Estimated cost: $5.1 million.
The Fourche bottoms have long been championed by state and private conservation groups for their importance to clean water and as a remnant of original, vanishing Arkansas. The Fourche serves as the drain and filter for all of Little Rock. It's lined by 300-year-old bald cypresses; some 50 species of fish swim there.
But the bottoms' location next to the BFI landfill and other industrial areas means it's not as clean as it should be. Five years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps chose the Fourche as one of eight streams nationally to be part of the Urban Rivers Restoration Initiative. With grants from the EPA and state agencies, Audubon Arkansas has worked since then on bank restoration, replanting and stream clean-up.
The Corps needs $2.6 million to buy the land — most of it in city hands — and $2 million for trails, viewing areas, restrooms, signage and parking. (Another $520,000 is for the impact study). Of that, Little Rock would kick in from $1.2 million to $2.1 million, depending on whether the government determines cost sharing at 25 or 35 percent. The value of the land owned by the city — $850,000 — is part of the match.
Private property owners include the Coleman family, who owned Coleman Dairy on Roosevelt Road.
Project manager Julia Smethurst said the bottomlands acquisition was first proposed in the 1980s; in the 1990s, the Corps completed a $30 million flood control project in the Fourche basin, but land acquisition wasn't budgeted. At the repeated request of the city, the Corps in 2000 agreed to re-evaluate the acquisition. The Urban Rivers designation came in 2005. With a few changes — including relocating the nature facilities away from what turned out to be an old city landfill — the Corps put out its impact study for review in 2005.
Smethurst said that after the Environmental Protection Agency receives the study there will be a 30-day review period for state and federal agencies. The Corps would then decide whether to budget for the project. If it declined to include it in its budget, Smethurst said, the project could still go forward if Congress appropriated funds.