Twenty-four Arkansas counties are considered to be "extremely at-risk" of a water shortage by the year 2050, according to a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Potential water shortages caused by climate change and the need for increased water withdrawals in the state could result in significant costs for the agricultural community, the report warns. But farmers and even some conservationists are not that concerned.
According to the NRDC report, 64 counties in Arkansas are "at-risk," meaning they face a moderate, high or extreme likelihood of water shortage in the future. The report, which was conducted by the consulting firm Tetra Tech, found that "climate change will impact water supplies, exacerbating existing pressures on water resources caused by population and economic growth."
Talk of depleting water supplies is nothing new in Arkansas. Aquifers have been depleted due to years of use by farmers and new threats to water quality, like natural gas drilling, have citizens concerned. But Arkansas is still considered by most to be a water-rich state. So are claims of potential shortages hyperbolic?
Tim Snell, associate state director for water resources at the Nature Conservancy, thinks so.
"It's really an aquifer issue," says Snell. "They're being used in an unsustainable way. They can't recharge as fast as they're being used. If you look at surface water, [like major lakes, rivers and streams], we're using less than five or six percent of the water that comes through the state. So that's not very bleak. There's a lot of room for us to get more water than we're getting right now. So it's not like we're up against a wall of not having enough water, it's getting the water that we have to the right places."
Harnessing that surface water will take time and infrastructure improvements, Snell says. Irrigation projects are currently underway in the Delta region to help move surface water from the state's rivers to local farms.
"Just like any water system, you have to have a way to get it from the source to where it's being used," Snell says. "If it goes to a municipal system you have to have a processing plant to make sure it's clean and potable water. So the infrastructure would include some large pipes and some pumps and all the things you would need to get it where it needs to go in the shape it needs to be. And this would absolutely create jobs that last."
Changes are also being made in the agricultural industry — long seen as one of the main causes of aquifer depletion — that will help take pressure off the state's groundwater supply.
George Dunklin is a rice farmer from Stuttgart. For the last 15 years, Dunklin has been using what's known as a tailwater recovery system that allows him to catch and reuse water used on his fields. Dunklin, who serves on the state Game and Fish Commission, says the practice is good for conservation, but also the bottom line.
"The economics is what's driven us to do this," Dunklin says. "We're using the natural bayous and we also have irrigation reservoirs so we can collect rain water and runoff water and we keep reusing that water. We do have some wells located on some of the farms for supplemental purposes. But we try, for economic reasons, to use those as little as possible."
This method of farming has saved Dunklin money and alleviated the need to constantly tap the aquifers. But not all farmers are in his position. Dunklin has built up a family farming business over the years and owns his own farm land. Farmers who rent land might not have the time or the capital to invest in such a project. He says other farmers in the state are using tailwater recovery methods, but not all of them.
"Change is hard," he says. "This method is so simple that it might scare some farmers a little bit. But this system turned my worst farm to my best, most efficient, most productive one in a matter of 15 years."
The NRDC report says climate change will drive potential water shortages. Dunklin says advances in technology and farming practices will serve to mitigate some of those negative effects. Environmentalists aren't so sure.
Peter Altman, the climate campaign director for the NRDC, says the report focuses on sustainability of demand on water supplies, and the rate at which those supplies are being refreshed is exceeded by the future demand for water.
"The problem is if you look around, that's a huge patch in the Delta that faces a risk of shortages," Altman says. "So there may be some fresh water sources but it might not be only those adjacent counties that see those sources as an option of where to get clean water. One of the problems is that there might be a much greater level of competition between counties and states for water supplies that are currently available. So when everybody starts dipping into them, you're not solving the problem you're just spreading out the stress or you might shift it from one region to another depending on who wins politically and who can get their hands on the water."
H.L. Moody is the communication director for for Earth Cause Organization, a consulting group based in Little Rock. Moody has been interviewing Arkansans about their attitudes toward climate change as part of a documentary project. He agrees that innovative farming practices can ease the burden on the state's aquifers, but says climate change still needs attention.
"Climate change isn't going to make a tornado; it's going to make the tornado worse. It's not going to cause a drought; it's going to make it worse. So we have to stop looking at climate change as the chess piece and we have to start looking at it as the chessboard," Moody says.