Benton Utilities, also known as Benton Municipal Light and Waterworks, is one of the oldest continually operating institutions in Saline County. In the twenty-first century, the company serves most of Benton and its surrounding areas in Saline County.
In its early days, Benton got its drinking water from the Saline River. It was not until 1914 that plans for a modern city-owned water and sewage system were laid out. In April 1914, R. C. Bailey was elected mayor of Benton on a platform of creating a municipal waterworks. In May 1914, Bailey and the city council “laid out plans for a system of engaging a firm of engineers to submit plans” for a municipal waterworks. On June 8, 1914, the ordinance was passed unanimously by the Benton City Council. County Judge W. R. Donham reportedly secured the signatures of every businessman in Benton’s business district on a petition to create an improvement district in Benton.
On November 5, 1914, the Benton Courier announced that there was new interest in building a city waterworks, and the City of Benton began implementing Judge Donham’s improvement district plan. In June 1915, the city contracted with J. B. McCrary Co. of Atlanta, Georgia, to build the city’s first water and sewage plant on Hazel Street. Work began in October 1915 and ended on July 6, 1916, at a cost of $90,000, funded by city taxes and sewer bonds that were to be paid in 1940. Light bonds were to be paid by 1937. There was no revenue taken from the sewer system because the sale of water generated revenue used to cover the cost of operation expenses and bonds.
The utility was named Benton Municipal Waterworks in 1916. Operations of its first plant were overseen by a central board made up of three commissioners appointed by the Benton City Council. In June 1937, the Hazel Street plant was modernized with a new filtering plant and double-capacity reservoir on Jefferson Street. The reservoir’s capacity was doubled from 500,000 gallons to one million. The total costs of those improvements were a reported $39,182, of which $17,000 was provided by the Public Works Administration (PWA).
The Flood Control Act of 1937 stated that every major stream in the Ouachita Basin be dammed, but due to budget cuts, the Saline River was not dammed at that time. In June 1947, about seventeen miles of water mains and fifteen miles of sewer lines were added to the city through a $420,000 contract with Jones Construction Company in Benton. By then, a reported sixty homes had both water and sewer lines, with another thirty waiting to be connected. A new 150,000-gallon water tank was added, as were 400 streetlights. A reported twenty-five tons of asphalt had to be used in repairing streets after water lines were installed.
By the summer of 1952, the Saline River was running noticeably low. The water crisis was averted when officials from the Benton Waterworks Commission sought help from the Little Rock Waterworks Department. A deal was reached, and after the creation of Lake Winona and the Alum Fork Dam on the Saline River, a reported five million gallons per day were sent to Saline County from then on. The City of Benton applied for a $224,945 federal grant to build what is now Lake Norrell, named for U.S. Representative William Frank Norrell of Monticello (Drew County). The new lake was created to service both the city of Benton as a backup water source and the Alcoa plant in Bauxite (Saline County). The lake was declared complete on April 1, 1954, and was to be used as a source of water only in case of drought.
The first recorded electric plant was built by E. Y. Stinson and other “progressive citizens” in 1904. The plant, led by Superintendent A. H. Bingham, existed just south of what was then the Missouri Pacific Depot in Benton. The Benton Courier was the first business in town to utilize an electric motor at the plant in 1907. The Courier plant was sold to E. F. Renken from Iowa in 1910. In 1912, Renken sold out to parties in St. Louis, Missouri, who managed the plant from then on, but due to frequent outages, the plant was shut down on November 4, 1918.
On November 7, 1918, Stinson, E. A. Parker, and Courier owner L. B. White unanimously voted to take control of the plant and convert it to a municipal system. They purchased the plant for $13,000. Reportedly, Benton resident J. M. Caldwell supplied the funds himself. The Benton Courier reported on November 21, 1918, that the plan was to operate the new power plant in conjunction with the city’s water plant. In March 1937, an 810-horsepower, 65-ton engine was installed at Benton’s electric light plant. In April 1953, the Courier reported that over a million dollars had been spent on improvements to the city’s water and power facilities. These included the filtering plant on Walnut Street in what later became the SCAT building, a chemical treatment plant on Jefferson Street, and an electricity-generating plant on West Hazel Street.
By the 1960s, Benton had a modern water treatment facility and distribution system that drew water from two locations on the Saline River. Plans to build a large reservoir called Lake Benton were derailed on the eve of federal approval because of supposed infighting among Benton residents. However, in 1963, a group of rural residents in Saline County asked the City of Benton to provide treated water beyond the city’s borders. At the time, Benton was struggling to service its city limits, so it declined supplying the entire county. Instead, smaller water districts and associations were formed to build the infrastructure necessary to supply treated water to rural areas.
The idea of damming the Saline River emerged again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, the director of Metroplan stated that Little Rock (Pulaski County) would run out of water by 2000 and that a dam near Benton could fix the problem. In 1972, the Southwest Water Association was formed. In 1973, a bill was introduced that would have banned damming the Saline River to preserve its status as a free-flowing river. Governor Dale Bumpers intervened and asked for a restudy of the issue, thus killing the bill. The issue of damming the river was brought up again in 1975 at a public hearing for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but in February 1975, Governor David Pryor decided against it. Between 1974 and 1979, the Salem Water Association and Benton Utilities were involved in a series of lawsuits regarding the annexation of Salem (Saline County) and Benton’s removal of customers from Salem’s customer rolls. Ultimately, in 1979, Benton was forced to return those customers to Salem’s rolls and reimburse the Salem Water Association for the monies collected from those customers during that time.
According to a 2017 annual report, Benton Utilities serves 22.74 square miles in the City of Benton. The utility provides electricity to 13,986; water to 15,288; and wastewater services to 15,061 in and around Benton. Its main offices are located near Riverside Park at 1827 Dale Avenue in Benton. Two water towers on Carpenter Street stand as a reminder of the utility’s founding in 1916.
For additional information:
Benton Courier Centennial Number, March 25, 1937.
“Benton Dam Completed.” Arkansas Democrat, November 12, 1953, p. 40.
“Benton Waterworks Completed.” Arkansas Gazette, June 26, 1937, p. 2.
Brenton, Angela Laird, Jaime Byrne, Ruth Craw, Bradford Mackey, Phyllis Moore, Mary Parker, Roby Robertson, and Carol Thompson. “Water for Saline County: A Tale of Two Futures.” Water Study Task Force, College of Professional Studies, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, November 2002.
“Dam Guards Benton from Water Crisis.” Arkansas Gazette, April 11, 1954, p. 3A.
“Two Reservoirs to Be Built at Benton.” Arkansas Gazette, July 31, 1936, p. 26.
Cody Lynn Berry
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