Fort Smith utilities director explains drinking water protection program

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 472 views 

For Fort Smith Utilities Director Jerry Walters, one of the city’s most important programs is also one you hear little about — the Lake Fort Smith Watershed Protection Area.

A watershed in the utilities sense of the word refers to an area or ridge of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins, or seas. Walters recently provided an update to the city’s Board of Directors at a June 13 study session, informing city directors that, while not all private land owners near the city’s water sources had a usage agreement with the city in place, risks at this point are “very minimal.”

Walters told Talk Business & Politics on Thursday (June 22) the department was unsure of how many private land owners had yet to sign usage agreements, but the city’s protocols, an established land buying program, and an exchange agreement with the U.S. Forestry Service (USFS), are failsafes against improper use that might contaminate the city’s drinking water supply.

A usage agreement would establish accepted uses of private land by the owners. For example, hunting in a forested area would not pose a threat; running a hog farm would.

As for the USFS Exchange Program, Walters explained when the agency deeds land inside the watershed to the city, the city must purchase and gift land in return at another area, “such as Northwest Arkansas.”

The Board established a fund for land purchases in 2006 in the amount of $6 million. With the 2016 budget, an additional $650,000 was approved. Walters said if there are any land purchases for 2017, spending will come out of the “new money” first. Should the amount spill over, the city’s remaining $2.6 million in reserves are there for backup.

Spending in excess of the $2.6 million would require an additional appropriation from the Board of Directors, but Walters did not foresee any such activity on the horizon.

“The process is very informal, and we’re not pushing anything,” Walters said. “There is a risk, but it only becomes a risk if somebody wants to put in a hog farm or something like that. Then, they would have to go get permits. But as it is with their current use, (risks are) very minimal. But even though it’s minimal, it’s still there, and that’s where the use agreements become necessary.”

Walters said the program is “not actively actively seeking purchases, but as people say, ‘I’d like to sell my property,’ that’s when we start talking to them.”

The Lake Fort Smith Watershed Protection Area is in the middle of a bowl-shaped acreage of land that includes parcels owned by the city, private land owners, and the Forestry Service. Since 2006, approximately $3.4 million, or just north of $300,000 annually, in land purchases have been completed to fulfill its mission.