ARKANSAS - Union County Looks to Industry to Solve Water Crisis : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


Union County looks to industry to solve water crisis


EL DORADO -- This time last year, a city water pump went dry and beat itself apart. Now, workers are lowering pumps as much as 60 feet to prevent another loss.

Glenn Holmes, the El Dorado Water Utilities general manager, knows he can't keep winning this battle much longer. This town's running out of water. In fact, the entire county is running out of water.

"We need to be moving a little faster [toward solving the crisis]," Holmes says.

"Or we may have to go in and use some ... emergency measures." At first glance, the problem might seem overwhelming. Scientists say Union County must drastically cut its use of ground water -- its only current source. But the industry that is its lifeblood -- oil refineries, chemical makers, poultry processors and wood products manufacturers -- depends on water.

Without water, there can be no industry. Without industry, there's no way to pay the bills.

To solve the problem, Union County officials are doing something a little unexpected: They're working to bring in even more water-guzzling industry. And if their plan works, they say, they're going to be better off than ever before.

The plan has long been in the works, but Panda Energy International formally announced March 8 that a subsidiary, Union Power Partners L.P., hopes to build a 2,720-megawatt power plant just north of El Dorado.

The massive plant -- Entergy's Nuclear One in Russellville generates 1,700 megawatts at peak performance -- would pump water from the Ouachita River to cool natural-gas-powered turbines that would generate the bulk of the plant's power. The resulting steam also would be used to create electricity.

Calling it a new generation merchant power plant, Union Power Partners would take advantage of recent and expected changes in state and federal regulations meant to encourage competition in the energy market.

Because members of the Union County Water Conservation Board also want to build a pipeline to the Ouachita River, they have teamed with Union Power Partners to pump river water to the county's largest industries.


Union County now pumps 24 million gallons of water from the Sparta aquifer every day. Such pumping uses up 9 billion gallons a year, or more than one-third of the water used yearly by Little Rock Municipal Water Works' 350,000 customers.

Scientists say Union County must cut back at least 12 percent just to keep already dangerously low water levels from dropping farther.

To give the aquifer a chance to rebound, the county needs to cut use by 72 percent, scientists say. Every day means a risk of striking a sea of salt water that current pressure keeps below the Sparta water -- which is considered to be some of the purest water in the world.

If the pressure is lost and salt water floods the Sparta, "Cry," Holmes says.

"You can treat salt water, but it's very, very expensive." Also, sections of the aquifer can be packed down so tightly that its fine sands will turn from a spongy mass able to store and filter water to hard, dry cement. Because of the risks, the state Soil and Water Commission designated Union County a critical ground-water area in 1996.

Scientists encourage the county to act within eight to 10 years. Holmes says he hopes he can make it through next summer.


The most significant strategy to solve the problem hinges on Union Power Partners, says Robert Reynolds, chairman of the water conservation board. Company and county officials have joined to plan an extension of the pipeline from the Union Power Partners plant to three industries just outside El Dorado.

They plan to pump about 10 million gallons of settled river water to El Dorado Chemical Co., Great Lakes Chemical Corp. and Lion Oil. The industries are conveniently located near one another, Reynolds says, and already have rights of way that the water board's pipeline could access.

Furthermore, Lion Oil and Great Lakes Chemical have just switched on a new system that allows the two to share and recycle water in their cooling towers, saving about 2.3 million gallons a day. Other conservation projects among industrial users should account for another 2 million gallons in savings in the near future, Reynolds says.

Combined with the conservation measures, the pipeline would reduce the county's use of the Sparta by about 60 percent. Officials hope to have the pipeline in place by this time 2002.

Though 60 percent is shy of the 72 percent reduction Soil and Water would like, it would make a tremendous difference, says Phil Hays, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Little Rock who monitors the Sparta.

"That's a very good percentage, a very high percentage," Hays says. "It would extend the life of the aquifer much, much farther ... and give the county a lot of extra breathing room."


Officials once envisioned a plan to pump far more river water into a treatment plant capable of creating drinkable water. But that plan would have cost almost $80 million, Reynolds says.

The current pipeline plan would cost near $30 million. The water conservation board now charges industry and residents 24 cents for every 1,000 gallons of Sparta water they use -- both to encourage conservation and to generate funds to pay for the pipeline.

For his part, Holmes is passing out conservation packets to help residents decrease the amount of water stored in their toilet reservoirs and the amount that flows through their faucets.

Holmes is beginning a project to trade residents low-flow shower heads for their old shower heads.

Because the El Dorado Water Utility sells water to six other water associations, Holmes is requiring those associations to engage in similar projects.


If the pipeline comes, Holmes says, it won't be too soon. Union Power Partners hopes to wrap up financing and win regulatory approval by August. If it does, the company says it would start construction by the end of that month.

Construction is slated to run into April 2002, when the plant is to become operational

Miraculously, Reynolds says, the county's plans haven't met with any significant resistance. Permits to pump the river water and cross a couple of wetlands came easily. And local environmentalists don't see the planned use of the river as a problem.

And if the plant comes, it will do more than just solve the county's water problem, it would add to its job base. When the critical ground-water designation was handed down in 1996, officials worried they would lose industry and their long-held regional clout.

Now, it looks as if they'll only be stronger as a result of the crisis.

"I think what the folks have gotten together and done in Union County is really good, and they've done it in relatively short order," Hays says.

"They're certainly not a static group of people."

-- (, March 20, 2000

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