LITTLE ROCK — The White River watershed , which flows 722 miles from its headwaters in Missouri through Arkansas to the Mississippi River, was named Wednesday as the nation’s second National Blueway.
The designation "recognizes that strong, diverse partnerships are the best way to address the modern-day threats to our nation’s most important rivers, and the White River is an outstanding example of that approach," Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes said during a ceremony at the Peabody Hotel.
"Your watershed sings when it comes to the elements of partnering, the concerted efforts of stakeholders of all kinds," he said.
The watershed, which includes the White River and all its tributaries stretching from Northwest Arkansas into southern and southeastern Missouri, includes about 18 million acres within 60 counties. About 1.2 million people live in the area, which is an important wintering spot for Mallard ducks.
Hayes said 26 separate groups, ranging from the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Arkansas Canoe Club and Ducks Unlimited to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the cities of Augusta and Clarendon, nominated the watershed for the designation.
"Scores of communities rely on the economic benefits this river provides," he said. "Tourism, agriculture, recreation. The economic impact and the importance of this system cannot be underestimated."
The designation does not establish a new protective status with regulations. Hayes said it is intended to recognize and support existing local and regional conservation, recreation and restoration efforts by coordinating local, state and federal activities.
The Connecticut River and its watershed, which flows from Canada to the Atlantic, was designated the first National Blueway last year by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Clarendon Mayor James Stinson praised the designation and discussed the importance of the White River to his city and the region.
"The recognition is about a special place, yes, but what it is really about is the people who live, who work and who visit the river," Stinson said. "The White and the Cache rivers are the heart of Clarendon and the people that live there. I believe this is also true for the thousands of communities that live up and down the White River."
During Wednesday’s event, Ann Mills, deputy undersecretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced her federal agency would appropriate $22 million to soil and water conservation in counties located within the White River watershed.
"These new resources will make a real difference on the ground for the people of Arkansas and Missouri," she said, adding that $13 million will go directly those hit hard by last year’s drought.
Hayes also told the crowd of more than 100 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to expand the land acquisition boundary of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge by more than 100,000 acres.
"By extending this boundary, the service will be able to work with more willing landowners to help protect and restore more of the Cache River flood plain and it will establish a wildlife corridor between the Cache River and the White River," he said.
Terrence "Rock" Salt, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army’s civil works program, also told the crowd that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was moving forward with the Lower Cache River Basis Restoration Project, which will restore flows to areas cut off by flood control work and increase fish and wildlife habitat.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, also attended the event.