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Lawsuit seeks to block project near rare bird

Fearing a plan to divert water to eastern Arkansas farms will harm the habitat of the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker,  environmentalists filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Environmentalists who fear a plan to divert water to eastern Arkansas farms will harm the habitat of the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker filed a federal lawsuit Thursday.

The project would pump 100 billion gallons of water per year from the White River. The Arkansas Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation said diverting so much water will harm the swampy woods that are the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat.

The groups on Thursday sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to halt work on the irrigation project.

“The ivory-billed woodpecker has a rare chance at recovery, but no one is listening,” said David Carruth, president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. “Within weeks of sighting the bird and with ridiculously little scientific research, the construction on the project began.”

Bob Anderson, spokesman for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Memphis Tenn., said their attorneys had not yet received the lawsuit.

“We believe that this project will not have a negative impact on the environment or on the bird’s ecosystem,” said Anderson, adding “we’re all very interested in saving the bird.”

Work started in June on a $34.5 million pumping station on the White River. The project is designed to make sure that farmers have water to irrigate their fields as their longtime water source — an underground aquifer — is slowly drying up.

The region is a major center for American rice production. Corps officials have said that, without the project, the amount of currently irrigated cropland would shrink by 77 percent, resulting in severe economic losses.

The federations, however, say the irrigation project would “at best degrade and at worst destroy” the east Arkansas habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was rediscovered by a kayaker last year.

Ornithologists had thought the bird had been extinct since the 1940s and some challenged the rediscovery. Skeptics said blurry videotape of a bird in flight wasn’t enough evidence, but many were won over after a team of Cornell University researchers released recordings of sounds that suggested the bird’s existence.