How do you protect one of the state's largest sources of drinking water? It depends on who you ask.
A watershed management plan was developed for Lake Maumelle and adopted by Central Arkansas Water (CAW) in February 2007. Now there's a battle going on to determine just how that plan will be implemented — with Pulaski County officials on one side, environmental groups on the other, and CAW somewhere in between.
Most water quality advocates agree that two pieces of the watershed management plan must be put in place: restrictions on development to limit pollution from water run-off and on the discharge of wastewater into the watershed.
Kate Althoff, spokesperson for Citizens Protecting Maumelle Watershed, thinks the best way to protect the water quality is to limit development to one house per five acres. According to the watershed management plan, this would provide enough open space to control for any environmental impact new development in the area might have. But Althoff says the county has been unwilling to limit development density.
Pulaski County and Central Arkansas Water have been negotiating to change the county's subdivision rules to limit the discharge of wastewater, among other things. The latest version of that agreement does not include specifications on lot sizes.
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines says he wants to wait until CAW and the county reach an agreement on the new subdivision rules before developing a land-use plan that would include zoning.
But Althoff says the county already has the authority to put minimum acreage requirements in its subdivision rules and according to an opinion released earlier this week by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, she's right.
“Judge Villines says he will zone that land in the future, but there's nothing in the subdivision rules that requires the county to follow through,” Althoff says. “It could take up to two years to develop a land-use plan. So zoning is going to require them to have the political will two years from now and the only way we'll ever have that is if there's a crisis.”
Villines says that McDaniel's opinion is just that. He says he's trying to balance watershed protection and landowners' rights. He's worried the county could wind up being sued over regulations requiring minimum lot sizes.
“Our way of looking at it is more conservative than [McDaniel's]. But I'd rather be more conservative and be right than take his opinion and be wrong,” Villines says.
Althoff says Villines' reaction was expected.
“He's just part of the county government,” she says. “There are 15 justices of the peace there and their opinions need to be heard and they need to hear from their voters to see what they think.”
Efforts are also being made to protect the watershed from the discharge of wastewater. The state Pollution Control and Ecology Commission voted last year to let the three counties that share the watershed (Pulaski, Perry and Saline) come up with wastewater regulations themselves. So far, none has. Pulaski County is the closest but wastewater restrictions are not yet in place.
If neither the commission nor the county government act to restrict wastewater discharge there's always legislation. State Rep. John Edwards filed HB 1746, a bill that makes the surface discharge of wastewater illegal anywhere in the watershed. President pro tem of the Senate, Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow, will sponsor the bill in that chamber, greatly increasing its chances of passing.
Edwards says the bill isn't meant to step on anyone's toes, including the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“We're not trying to do anybody's job,” Edwards says. “We're just trying to give them the tools and the authority to do their job better.”
Mark Maner, director of watershed management for CAW, agrees that regulating wastewater is better left to the state.
“The state has more resources,” Maner says. “They've got everything in place for inspectors, enforcement and all the legal action that needs to be done, whereas the county doesn't have any of that established yet.”
Another way to protect the watershed would be for the state to buy it. Johnson has spoken with CAW about a plan to buy more than 800 acres in the western part of the watershed for an as-yet-unspecified price. The senator is hoping to possibly combine state funds with money from other groups to buy the land. State Game and Fish, which has expressed interest in using some of its gas lease funds to buy part of the land, would eventually turn the property into a wildlife management area.
A spokesperson for Game and Fish declined to comment on exactly how much the agency would be willing to contribute to the purchase. An appraisal of the land has been completed but the details have not yet been released.
Stephanie Hymel, stewardship coordinator for CAW, says the non-profit Trust for Public Lands would initially purchase the land and the money collected from various parties would be used to pay the organization back. CAW would provide some of its own funding and possibly some grant money as well. The organization has applied for a Forest Legacy Grant through the U.S. Forest Service.
The CAW board will meet today (March 12) to decide whether or not to accept the revised subdivision regulations. Althoff hopes they will accept the attorney general's opinion and include five-acre minimum lot sizes. Maner says he thinks the new regulations are a good first step and thinks the board should accept them, as does Villines. Rep. Edwards hopes to run his bill in the House later this week.