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Federal water projects threaten to harm woodpecker's habitat

CLARENDON, Ark.—The home of the newly rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker has been protected for decades by the White River and its swampy forest.

Now, the U.S. government is set to drain 150 billion gallons of water a year from the White River and is contemplating dredging it deeper, two projects that some environmentalists and federal wildlife officials say could harm the woodpecker and damage its habitat in the Big Woods of Arkansas.

This threat—from two Army Corps of Engineers projects—comes as other parts of the federal government scramble to create a recovery plan for the woodpecker, which was long thought to be extinct, and try to add more land to its home.

"The biggest threat to the ivory-billed woodpecker is the unbridled arrogance of the Army Corps of Engineers," charged Arkansas Wildlife Federation President David Carruth, a Clarendon lawyer.

The Army Corps has just started work on a controversial $319 million project to siphon water from the White River to help Arkansas rice farmers, whose demand for water has nearly drained the local aquifers. They say they need the water to stay afloat financially.

On Tuesday, the Army Corps sent a biological assessment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in charge of the two wildlife refuges where the bird lives and is coordinating efforts to ensure its recovery, that said the irrigation project would "unlikely adversely affect the ivory-billed woodpecker."

The reasoning, according to the nine-page report, is that earlier studies found that the water diversion wouldn't hurt bottomland hardwoods and wetlands. "It is reasonable to assume that these withdrawals would not have negative effects on the ivory-billed woodpecker." The corps would clear 135 acres of forestland and replant trees in 60 acres. The entire Big Woods area comprises more than half a million acres of forest.

Some other federal officials think more study is required.

"I think it needs further evaluation," Larry Mallard, the manager of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, said Wednesday. He cited a split among local farmers on whether they want the project, and the community's long-standing distrust of the Army Corps.

After the irrigation project, there's an Army Corps plan on the "back burner" to dig a deeper navigational channel through the river to allow more barge traffic. Environmentalists and Mallard say that project, while more unlikely, would be "more egregious."

It isn't just the ivory-billed woodpecker that lives here among thick patches of 1,000-year-old trees. This area, sometimes referred to as the "Amazon of North America," is home to 245 bird species, seven of them on the endangered list. But environmental advocates say they hope to use the woodpecker to stop the Army Corps, just as other endangered species, such as the snail darter, have stopped massive and popular projects.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps beat the wildlife federation in court over a lawsuit filed before the woodpecker entered the picture, essentially winning the right to go ahead with the irrigation project.

"Protection to the ivory-billed is important to the corps," said Jim Bodron, the acting assistant chief of project management at the Army Corps' Memphis regional office. "We're not doing anything that could be potentially harmful until we do all the proper coordination."

Rice farmers and irrigation-project leaders around Stuttgart, Ark., said they weren't asking for much, just about 1.8 percent of the White River's water. And they won't use the water when levels are unusually low.

"We're not doing anything to the wetlands," said farmer Dan Hooks of Slovak, a member of the White River Irrigation Board, which will operate the system once it's built. "If we're not going to hurt the tree, we're not going to hurt the woodpecker."

After a century of rice farming that's made this area America's rice capital, farmers are running out of water from the shallow local aquifers. They're now tapping into a deeper aquifer that also supplies the region's drinking water.

Drilling deeper wells and running them constantly costs about $25,000 per well to dig and then about $20 an hour to operate, farmer Frank Prislousky of Stuttgart said.

"If the project is not built, water will not be available to irrigation for about 77 percent of existing cropland" by 2015, Bodron said.

Neal Galloway, a Stuttgart farmer whose family has been growing rice since 1910, thinks his fellow farmers could have used rain-catching reservoirs rather than relying so much on wells.

"It's our fault," Galloway said. Instead of wells, Galloway's family set aside 300 acres of valuable farmland to make a natural reservoir.

Rodney Williams, a University of Arkansas civil engineering professor, said the irrigation project shouldn't harm the woodpecker habitat if it's managed properly.

"I see the concerns from the environmental advocates' standpoint, but I don't think they're going to suck the river dry for agricultural purposes just because they can," Williams said. "Nobody would stand it."

The now-stalled navigation project would dredge a 9-foot-deep channel in the lower White River and build riverbank jetties, which would deepen the channel further by pushing sediments away from the river's center using its currents. That $36 million project is designed to reduce the need for constant dredging to help barge traffic, Army Corps spokesman Robert Anderson said.

The navigation project "is especially a concern for us," said Ron Rohrbaugh, who leads the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's ivory-billed woodpecker search teams. It could change the water quality, sediments and course of the river, he said.

The worries about the White River overshadow a positive change in the woodpecker's habitat.

Over the last 20 years, a state, federal and a private partnership with The Nature Conservancy has expanded the off-limits area of the Big Woods, making a larger area for the bird to roost and fly in, said Scott Simon, the Arkansas director of the conservancy.

"Twenty people working together have conserved 120,000 acres over the last 20 years," Simon said. But, he added, another 210,000 acres are needed.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WOODPECKER

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050525 WOODPECKER

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