Water quality as important as quantity, even during drought

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – As Arkansas" drought deepens, many are finding that "you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone," said John Pennington, Washington County extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Exceptional and severe drought in parts of Arkansas have left some communities without water and have prompted some water systems to put water-use restrictions in place as reservoirs and other waterways become more shallow by the day.

"Water users in northwestern Arkansas are faring a little better, with lake levels that are still at 90 percent full," Pennington said. "However, the longer we go without 9-23 or so inches of soaking rainfall across the state between now and September to end the drought, a lot more may be mandated to restrict some water uses.

"It's a strange concept, to go without water, especially so when water is essential to so many things in life as we know it and it's a resource we take for granted," he said. "Without enough water we can't produce food crops, forage for grazing animals, survive, or much less water our lawns."

However, even at time when water quantity is of prime importance, water quality still matters.

"In times like these, I can certainly understand the perspective of some our neighbors in the western U.S., who think ‘who cares about water quality, when you don't have enough water quantity?" Pennington said.

"As the pressure mounts on our water supplies, so does the pressure to preserve its quality," he said. "This means protecting our water as much as we can by tackling the things that can degrade our water quality, including not over-fertilizing our lawns, properly disposing of trash such as cigarette butts, and using other best management practices to prevent runoff from  washing pollutants it into the waterways and reservoirs here in the Natural State."

Pennington said that "as soon as the rains come back and begin to fill the wells and drinking reservoirs around the state, we'll all be wanting our drinking, fishing, and swimming water to be of high quality."

To preserve both quality and quantity, many Arkansans are implementing voluntary measures.

For example, some aren't watering the lawn anymore because they see it as a waste of water or too costly. 

Mike Daniels, Extension water quality specialist for the U of A Division of Agriculture said: "I won't water my lawn with treated water, because treated water has is too high of a quality for that use." 

Extension Engineer Karl Vandevender uses a variation on Daniels" theme.

"I never water my lawn because I don't have one," he said. "My entire landscape is composed of native plants that do very well in drought conditions." 

Pennington said that some can't fathom using water for keeping turf green, "because they can remember experiences of their own or stories from their parents having to pull water up from wells, or harvesting it from rooftops." 

"When you have to work really hard for your water, and you only have a limited amount, the way you use it tends to change in comparison with having almost all the water you want or can afford with the twist of a spigot," he said.

A series of water quality podcasts to help you improve water quality are available at www.uaex.edu, and cover a variety of issues, including  what is water quality?, what are watersheds?, rain barrels, storm drains, stormwater, rain gardens, and other water quality best management practices that individuals can use around the home or business. The podcasts, which will run for several months, are funded by the Arkansas Natural Resource Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.