Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Earlier this month, the Pulaski County Planning and Development department released a recommended land use plan for the Lake Maumelle watershed – one that is favored by developers.
Wallace Roberts & Todd, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm, helped design the plan with input from community groups, developers and Central Arkansas Water officials. But does the final product go far enough to protect water quality? Clean water activists think not.
In 2008, Tetra Tech, an engineering and consulting firm, released a Watershed Management Plan for Lake Maumelle, a source of drinking water for approximately 400,000 people in Central Arkansas. The firm suggested two possible paths for protecting water quality. One path was a conservation-based approach, which relied heavily on keeping a large percentage of land in the watershed completely undeveloped. The other, a performance-based approach, allows developers to use a Site Evaluation Tool (SET), a computer program that analyzes what effect different development scenarios may have on water quality, to make sure run-off of phosphorous and other chemicals doesn't harm the lake.
The recommended plan released by the county this month is performance-based, and that has clean water advocates worried. Kate Althoff, of Citizens Protecting Maumelle Watershed (CPMW), says the SET must be tested.
"The SET is unverified, and we have best management practices that we'll be using in the watershed that should be tested before they're used," she says. "In the original watershed management plan, the performance based approach was supposed to be done on a small test scale for a period of three years or something like that. The test case now will be the first large subdivision built out there."
Developers prefer the performance-based plan to zoning, minimum lot size requirements or conservation-based plans because it allows them to build higher-density developments. In public comments filed with the planning department, Timothy Daters of White-Daters & Associates, speaking on behalf of Deltic Timber, one of the largest landholders in the watershed, said the performance-based approach would "provide Deltic with the flexibility to develop their property while protecting the water quality of Lake Maumelle." Daters said other options, like those preferred by groups like Sierra Club and CPMW, "place unwarranted and unsupported restrictions on property owners."
Martin Maner, director of watershed management at Central Arkansas Water, says the SET, combined with assurances that a certain percentage of land will remain undeveloped, will protect the water supply.
"The real risk of only using the SET and performance-based standards is they have to be designed properly, constructed properly and maintained to keep up that efficiency," Maner says. "If any of those areas are not done adequately, then it's going to exceed the [chemical loading] rates. My position has been you can use the SET but you have to have a minimum of 30 percent of undisturbed land. That's like insurance. The other things that are really good about what's being proposed is the prohibition of those egregious uses that should not be in the watershed of a water supply lake, such as natural gas exploration, mining extraction, high-density animal operations, landfills, hazardous waste transfer stations, all those things that should not be in there. That's good."
Althoff says developers have always favored a performance-based approach and have lobbied for it throughout the plan's development. Maner says it's natural that developers would take an interest in how the plan turns out, but doesn't think they have had any undue influence on the process.
"I would say that the major landholders in the county's portion of the watershed are the two main developers and CAW, and yes, they have had influence on this because we are all the major landholders. So, because they understand it, and make comments, then the planners respond to that. I don't think they've done anything under the table. They're just major property holders so they've had changes in what was originally proposed. But it's all going to come down to what Judge Villines wants and how well the quorum court members are educated," Maner says.
The quorum court, according to Althoff, will be instrumental in getting any kind of protections for the lake passed. Since they will ultimately vote on the land use plan, their understanding of the issue is critical.
"When we developed the original watershed management plan in 2008, we never did have the quorum court's buy-in on it at all. For some of them it was over their head. They had never seen land-use, they had never seen any of that stuff before and they didn't care. The problem was, we spent $1.2 million on a plan and we didn't have buy-in from the county leadership and therefore we couldn't generate enough political will to pass the management plan criteria, so we got this watered down thing we're talking about now."
Althoff is also worried that groups like Secure Arkansas, who, according to a mass email from one of the group's leaders, believe that attempts to regulate the watershed are part of a U.N. plot to undermine private property, will have some success in lobbying quorum court members.
"I'm concerned that now that we're showing up on their bubble, they're really going to lobby the quorum court, which to begin with was very reluctant to go into this kind of land use plan," she says.
The county's planning department is accepting public comments on the proposed plan until Jan. 31. You can view it here: arktimes.com/lakemaumelleplan. Maner said the plan will then go to the county planning board before moving on to the quorum court. A final draft of the plan probably won't make it to the quorum court until the spring of next year.
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