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Singing the Blueway blues

7/26/2013 at 12:00 a.m.

By Michelle Kitchens, ARFB legislative research coordinator

Column originally published in the summer issue of Arkansas Agriculture magazine.

The White River watershed covers 27,900 square miles in Missouri and Arkansas. In Arkansas, the watershed stretches east to west from Jonesboro to Fayetteville flowing downstate until it joins the Mississippi River in Desha County. Approximately 1.2 million people live in the watershed. 

Last summer, several conservation and wildlife groups partnered with state and federal agencies to apply to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to designate the White River Watershed as a National Blueway. That designation was officially announced by the DOI last January. However, the designation left many landowners in the watershed with questions and concerns. Lack of landowner support and letters from Arkansas’ U.S. Senators requesting the DOI rescind the designation were too much to overcome. Additionally, requests from the original nominators to rescind the Blueway designation resulted in it being officially withdrawn by the DOI on July 3. The federal agency then decided to mothball the program, nationwide, on July 15. 

While the process surrounding the National Blueway designation of the White River didn’t inspire confidence, it’s a worthwhile topic to explore. Landowners didn’t embrace the idea for many reasons: lack of initial input, apprehension of federal designations or other objections. What farmers should discuss is the future of managing water or other resources.

The National Blueway System was created in May 2012 by the DOI. By definition a National Blueway is a “. . . national and regionally significant river and their watersheds that are highly valued recreational, social, economic, cultural, and ecological assets for the communities that depend on them.”

The goal of the National Blueway System was a holistic approach for the benefit of the watershed, its many uses and to increase cooperation among stakeholders and agencies throughout the watershed. Another goal was increasing public awareness that what happens upstream impacts those downstream and vice versa. The program’s design was to be based on voluntary participation with no impeding of water or property rights. 

However, environmental regulation pressures continue to mount on farmers. Giving special recognition to waterways provides an opportunity for those wishing to restrict all agriculture practices. Landowners worry that voluntary programs will become mandatory, and they’ll have little input. 

The White River National Blueway designation played into that stereotype. The nomination had little to no input from agriculture, but more than half of its “strategic objectives” were agriculture-related. The document also referenced undocumented “challenges” to this designation such as: 

  • “Agriculture-related genetic pollution;” 
  • “Agricultural practices that negatively affect water quality;” 
  • “Over consumption of water by … agricultural users that adversely affects water levels”
The goals outlined by this nomination aimed to make several changes to agricultural-related activities. While the nomination didn’t vehemently attack agriculture, almost every mention of farming spoke of it as an obstacle to overcome in the watershed. The truth is farmers and ranchers partner regularly with wildlife and conservation groups to better the environment. That relationship, of course, shouldn’t automatically be considered adversarial. 

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