The Arkansas Black Mayors Association is working in partnership with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service on a first-of-its-kind, $95.9 million project to ease the impact of flooding on cities across southern and eastern Arkansas.
The improvement effort will target 14 watersheds and take place in three phases: planning, design and construction.
On Monday, the Black Mayors Association gathered in downtown Little Rock to announce the engineers they hope to bring on as project planning consultants and plans to hold community meetings in flood-prone areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service set aside $500 million to fund watersheds across the country, according to Kenneth Lee, the association's lead consultant for the project. The service designated nearly 20% of that money for Arkansas, he said during Monday's announcement.
"This is a significant investment for the state infrastructure," Lee said. "It shows the commitment to the federal government to addressing the needs of our underserved communities."
Lee described the project as "the first in the history of the United States" that could shape efforts to address the needs of communities with limited resources in other parts of the country.
The 14 areas are:
- Hughes and Jennette
- El Dorado
- Stamps and Lewisville
- Forrest City, Haynes and Marianna
- Pine Bluff
- Helena-West Helena
- Helena-West Helena, Lake View and Marvell
The areas were selected based on factors that included environmental risk, historical flooding, community need and potential impact, said Karen McCurdy, a senior vice president at Crafton Tull, who is supporting the Black Mayors Association with project management.
While the areas are named for and include the listed cities, McCurdy explained that the project boundaries go beyond the limits of these cities.
"These are natural hydrological boundaries, not political boundaries," she said.
The Black Mayors Association picked six engineering teams to provide consulting for the project and its 14 areas:
- Freese and Nichols Inc. (Hughes and Jenette; El Dorado)
- Michael Baker International Inc. (Dumas, Turrell and Camden)
- ICONIC Consulting Group Inc. (Madison; Forrest City, Haynes and Marianna; Helena-West Helena, Lake View and Marvell)
- KEE Concrete and Construction Inc. (Altheimer and Helena-West Helena)
- EJECS -- FTN Associates JV (Stamps and Lewisville; Pine Bluff)
- Headway Environmental (Eudora and Wilmot)
The Black Mayors Association chose the teams after spending a week in Little Rock examining their proposals, association President and Lewisville Mayor Ethan Dunbar said. The association then assembled community members and experts to evaluate those proposals before making their selections. Contract negotiations remain to be finalized.
Dunbar said that the teams would begin contacting city officials after Monday's announcement.
State conservationist Mike Sullivan said the Natural Resources Conservation Service's chief, Terry Cosby, came to Arkansas last year to announce the funding and the service's partnership with the Black Mayors Association. Sullivan said the funds received for the project provide a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to mitigate the effect of flooding in these areas.
The state gets roughly 50 inches of rainfall a year, according to Sullivan, though the amount varies enough that "you never know when and how you're going to get it." He added that Arkansas seems to be getting "more and more intense events" with time, and that as a consequence the state's infrastructure isn't always prepared to handle heavy rains and other severe weather.
The service has worked for years to help provide flood protection for small communities and farms through various efforts.
One such effort is the over 100 flood-retarding dams that have been built across the state. While they provide significant protection, Sullivan said that in eastern and southern Arkansas, particularly in small, rural areas, the amount of help given has diminished.
"It seems at times like they've been somewhat overlooked," he said.
"If you go out and look at some of these communities, they have flooding that occurs every time it rains," he said. "There's some places that don't have clean water, drinking facilities. They don't have appropriate waste disposal facilities. There's some needs there that just need to be addressed."
Dunbar said that many of these small communities with limited resources and dwindling populations don't have the funding to adequately address issues with flooding. He said that some of these communities were built in flood areas "because that's all that was available to them back then." For many who live in these communities, Dunbar said that they have become used to living with the flooding, but that the $95.9 million project will help to change that.
"This is going to improve quality of life for a lot of residents who think they just have to accept the status quo," he said.
Several mayors in the affected areas, though, said they are concerned the association isn't moving the project forward quickly enough.
Forrest City Mayor Larry Bryant said that he felt like his city was "in limbo" with regard to the project, and that he'd been struggling to get direct information on it. He said that his city wasn't consulted before they moved forward with the project, though the association has recently begun inviting him to take a greater part in the process.
"I'm just interested in having feet at the table and having a say as to what happens in our community," said Bryant, who began his role as mayor in January.
However, he said what matters most to him is that they receive the funding for the project and that he serve his citizens as best as he can, a goal he says the association shares with him.
During the announcement, Dunbar said the program wasn't yet fully funded for each of its phases, though the Black Mayors Association will apply for more funding.
Marianna Mayor Ora Barnes Stevens said she is among several community leaders who hope to leave their agreement with the Black Mayors Association and manage the projects within their cities for themselves.
"We need to do that ourselves," she said. "We know our communities. We know our cities. We know our people."
In an interview after the announcement, association Executive Director Frank Bateman said they were running about 30 days behind on their efforts but were "picking up steam." Dunbar attributed the delays to a former consultant, who is no longer in the role.
"It's been a rough journey, but we're steady, focused, on the objective," he said during the announcement. "No matter what we stay focused on getting this work done and we deal with whatever we have to deal with along the way."