Water board hears future customers' concerns

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

(Ed. note: This story was in our print publication Dec. 17, 2010, but not published online)

A public forum with members of the board set up to bring water to rural residents of Carroll County drew about 37 people to the Cattlemen's Building at the Carroll County Fairgrounds Tuesday night.

Most of the people there wanted rural water but many were concerned about the powers the five-member board would have to exercise eminent domain, forbid people from using wells or sell water, or the water delivery system, to corporations or overseas interests in the future.

A few were worried that nearby poultry producers would deplete the ground water and aquifer and leave them without water.

Matt Bishop, the attorney the board retained, assured the crowd eminent domain would only be used as a last resort.

"They have a duty to try to use whatever is already there before they go into the middle of your field," Bishop said.

Bishop added that no one can tell people that they can't use their well, nor does the board have the right to test well water, according to state law. The board does not have the power to supersede state law, he said.

The Public Facilities Board, established by the Carroll County Quorum Court on Aug. 20, is planning to get the water from the Carroll-Boone Water District, which already pipes water from Beaver Lake to Berryville via a 30-inch pipe. The board will purchase the water from Berryville and Green Forest, then set up a system to deliver it to rural customers. Because the water is already treated, the board will save between $2 million and $3 million dollars on a water treatment plant.

The Carroll-Boone water line runs from the south edge of Berryville to Harrison, which should make it easier for the facility to tap into and supply water without infringing on private property, board members said.

The entity will be a cooperative, with members owning the facility. No one will force county residents to sign up for water delivery, but because the cost is shared among members, the more people in an area that do sign up, the lower the cost will be.

County resident Pat Matsukis said her biggest fear is the future possibility of water being sold to China or a corporation and local control being lost. She had just read about two public water facilities in California that had recently been sold to corporations.

Matsukis was also concerned about a big chicken house being put in that would deplete the aquifer, she said.

Board members said human water use only accounts for 7 percent of the water lost from Beaver Lake, while evaporation accounts for 8 percent, so there is no immediate fear of running out of water.

Leslie Stidham said most people are not against rural water but they don't trust the government. The current board members are known and trusted, he said, but what about down the road, if laws change or leadership changes?

Board Chairman Freddy Worley responded that they have to work with the government in order to get any money for the system. Now, the board members have established a line of credit to pay for advertising town hall meetings and board meetings, which they are personally financing.

The United States Department of Agriculture will provide 45 percent of the cost through grant money and loans, and the board plans to apply for as many grants as they are eligible for. The rest will be financed by the members, Worley said.

The board has to provide a yearly report to the quorum court within 90 days of the start of the year. The report will be audited by someone outside the quorum court, under the terms of state law, board members said in response to a question about audits.

There were many questions the board could not answer, because they are waiting for the results of a Feb. 8 election to determine their future. A petition containing 1,600 signatures was turned into the county clerk's office Oct. 15 in an effort to repeal the ordinance that established the board.

At least 1,345 of those signatures were verified and the issue will be put to a vote. If the protesters prevail, the board will cease to exist.

"Until this election's out of the way, we don't really know what we're gonna do," said board member Sammy Smith.

Engineering Services Inc. (ESI) has been retained to establish the system, but until the board knows they will continue to exist, the engineers can't proceed with a preliminary engineering report. Detailed plans or even a survey to determine how many people actually want or need rural water are on hold, and without that information, the board has no idea what the system will cost.

In a board meeting immediately following the public forum, the board heard that the Cattlemen's Association will let them use their space for meetings free of charge any time it is not already booked.

The board voted to meet the third Tuesday of every month at the Cattlemen's Association building, if the space is available, starting in January.

The board also discussed holding more public forums in various areas, including Green Forest, Eureka Springs, and possibly Holiday Island or Oak Grove.

A pubic forum will be held Jan. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Cornerstone Bank in Eureka Springs, if the space is available. It will not be a board meeting but will follow a question-and-answer format.

The Jan. 18 board meeting will include a public forum and is planned for the First National Bank in Green Forest.

The board tentatively plans to hold another public forum Jan. 25 in Holiday Island.

The board also discussed ways to get people out to vote in the Feb. 8 election and how to make it clear to rural residents that they need to vote if they want rural water.

The facility needs 300 names of members to join the Arkansas Rural Water Association, and the board plans to have sign-up sheets in as many places as possible, including banks, Worley's Tire, and this newspaper office.

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