Central Arkansas Water

Central Arkansas Water (CAW) is the largest utility of its kind in the state, providing fresh drinking water to about 450,000 residents of Central Arkansas across Pulaski, Lonoke, Saline, and Grant counties. CAW serves Little Rock (Pulaski County), North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Alexander (Pulaski and Saline counties), Cammack Village (Pulaski County), College Station (Pulaski County), Sherwood (Pulaski County), Wrightsville (Pulaski County), Shannon Hills (Saline County), the Little Rock Air Force Base, Cabot (Lonoke County), Bryant (Saline County), Salem (Saline County), Sardis (Saline County), Woodland Hills (Pulaski County), Jacksonville (Pulaski County), and unincorporated areas of Pulaski County. The 145th Street Water and Sewer Improvement District, the Brushy Island Public Water Authority, the Sardis Water Association Public Water Authority, the Ridgefield Estates Public Facilities Board, and North Pulaski Water Works also fall under the CAW umbrella.

In the territorial period, between 1819 and 1836, drinking water was usually taken from nearby springs or from the Arkansas River. However, water from the river was often cloudy and high in salt content, causing it to taste bad. In 1876, the Little Rock City Council gave various private companies the franchise to supply and sell fresh drinking water to the citizens of Little Rock. In 1883, well water from six wells in the Baring Cross area of North Little Rock delivered fresh water from there to Little Rock via underwater pipe. This was ultimately a failure, as it proved difficult to keep the underwater pipe functioning correctly. In 1891, more wells drilled on the banks of the Arkansas River and one in the middle of the river itself were used but later abandoned.

It was not until American Water Works got involved in 1889 that an effective system was built. In 1886, the Ozark Point Treatment facility was built in Pulaski Heights (Pulaski County). By 1915, a combination of river and well water was being used, but in 1926, the Broadway Bridge Water Pipe was installed to pump water from Little Rock to North Little Rock without the use of wells. In 1934, Little Rock’s Chamber of Commerce Water Committee began seeking a new water source.

In 1935, the City of Little Rock applied to the New Deal program the Public Works Administration (PWA) for funds to develop a new water supply system. Previously, the Arkansas River was the area’s main water source, but by this time its waters were considered unsafe for drinking. Newly elected Little Rock mayor Richard E. Overmann promised to secure a new water source for the area. The City of Little Rock’s proposal to build a new reservoir on the Alum Fork of the Saline River was denied because the city did not own its water distribution system. The application was revised on the basis that the city would purchase the Arkansas Water Company’s properties in Saline County, thereby creating a municipal water system that would serve Little Rock and North Little Rock.

In 1936, the City of Little Rock sold $6.59 million in four-percent, forty-year, non-callable bonds (bonds that cannot be redeemed early), which paid for a plant and distribution system on the south side of the Arkansas River and started construction of a dam on the Alum Fork of the Saline River. In 1935, the City of Little Rock purchased property of the Arkansas Water Company for $3,850,000 using money from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Construction began after the city took ownership of the utility on April 1, 1935, on what was then called the Alum Fork Reservoir (later renamed Lake Winona). The first water from the new system flowed into Little Rock on February 17, 1938.

Many residents and landmarks were uprooted with the building of the dam. A cemetery and a church were relocated to the nearby Reform community. Reportedly, the WPA purchased rocks from residents at $5.00 per truck load. The rocks were then used to construct buildings, walls, and walkways, and some were placed on the Alum Fork Dam for rip-rap. In 1941, the WPA’s travel guide listed Lake Winona as the “principal source of Little Rock’s water supply.”

Construction of Lake Maumelle began in 1956, ten miles northwest of Little Rock, and finished in 1958. In 1959, under the leadership of Mayor W. F. “Casey” Laman, the City of North Little Rock purchased the system north of the river from American Water Works and merged it with the Amboy-Oak Grove Water Improvement District and the Park Hill Consolidated Water Improvement District by assuming their bonded indebtedness. In 1966, the Pleasant Valley Water Treatment Plant, later renamed the Jack H. Wilson Water Treatment Plant, went online for the first time.

Between the 1970s and early 2000s, Little Rock Municipal Water Works and the North Little Rock Water Department continued to work as separate entities. In 2000, Little Rock mayor Jim Dailey, North Little Rock mayor Patrick Henry Hays, Little Rock Water Commission chair Jane Dickey, and North Little Rock Water Commission chair Francille Turbyfill sent a letter to University of Arkansas at Little Rock chancellor Charles E. Hathaway asking him to assemble a special task force to study regional water issues and make recommendations. Hathaway’s team consisted of UA Little Rock professors Joel E. Anderson, Gary D. Chamberlin, Jeffrey B. Connelly, Michael R. Hemphill, Roby D. Robertson, and Ashvin P. Vibhakar. The resulting study, Water for Our Future: Overcoming Regional Paralysis, helped inspire the two companies and the governing bodies of Little Rock and North Little Rock to merge into one entity, Central Arkansas Water.

In 2023, it was announced that CAW would be consolidating with the wastewater treatment system of Wrightsville after having begun to assist the community at the request of environmental regulators. The following year, CAW announced the expansion of its services to Ferndale (Pulaski County).

For additional information:
Anderson, Joel E., Gary D. Chamberlin, Jeffrey B. Connelly, Michael R. Hemphill, Roby D. Robertson, Ashvin P. Vibhakar. Water for Our Future: Overcoming Regional Paralysis. A report by the Water Study Task Force. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, September 2000.

Central Arkansas Water. http://www.carkw.com/ (accessed October 23, 2023).

Flaherty, Joseph. “Central Arkansas Utilities to Merge.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 23, 2023, pp. 1A, 3A. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/oct/23/efforts-underway-to-consolidate-wrightsvilles/ (accessed October 23, 2023).

Cody Lynn Berry
Benton, Arkansas


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