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Climate change and population increase could cause possible water shortages.

Clifton Adcock July 27th, 2011

Without water, almost no life on Earth would survive.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s comprehensive water plan became contentious before it was even released.

A draft version of the plan in April covers a variety of water-related issues in the state and provides both technical and policy recommendations affecting the reliable water supply up to 2060.

The plan was expected to address availability of surplus water in Oklahoma, but some southeastern Oklahoma lawmakers said it does not adequately deal with the topic.

The issue of what is considered “surplus water” is important: A federal lawsuit by a Texas water district is seeking to buy surplus water from the state before it flows into the Red River.

In addition, water from Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma being sold to Oklahoma City has created another conflict that could cause a face-off between the state and American Indian tribes.

In the end, the state’s water plan not only affects cities, businesses and tribes, but also every Oklahoman, and possibly citizens from other states.

Future shortages
The draft plan encompasses thousands of pages of technical analysis and recommendations.

The OWRB, which has been working on the plan since 2006, has held numerous public meetings over the issue, and the nine-member board is expected to vote on it in October and in February submit it to the Legislature.

Several reasons for the study exist, but they all come down to reliably providing a statewide water supply, said Kyle Arthur, director of planning for the OWRB’s comprehensive water plan.

In 2009, the Oklahoma Regional Water Utilities Trust completed the regional raw water supply study, which determined central Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City, does not have enough water to meet projected needs beyond 2030. That engineering study identified Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma as the most feasible option to supply additional water.

The draft comprehensive water plan predicted that increased water use — much of it through population growth and increased use in agriculture and energy production — could lead to both surface water and groundwater shortages, assuming current consumption trends hold steady.

Water availability could also diminish because of climate change, a supplemental report to the draft stated.

“Climate change is a potential uncertainty,” Arthur said. “Climate change could affect, particularly, water supply — how much is or isn’t available now as a result of climate change or climate variability.”

While it may be easy for the layman to get lost in the multitude of issues, analyses and forecasts contained within the draft plan, a good portion of the information fits into seven high-priority issues identified as crucial in preventing “train wrecks,” Arthur said.

“These are issues we see in the future that could be important,” Arthur said. “We’re not saying they absolutely must change, or they absolutely must be implemented. But we believe they are things that must be looked at because they could be something that could be an issue 10, 20, 25 years in the future.”

The first of the seven issues is the need for funding to create and operate a groundwater and surface-water quantity and quality program, Arthur said.

A significant portion of the water used in Oklahoma goes toward agricultural use, such as irrigation in western Oklahoma, and of the large number of water basins in the state, only half have received a hydraulic study, Arthur said.

‘Low on their flow’
“Instream flow assessment,” the second issue, is not only a controversial issue, but one that has not been developed and matured in terms of policy, Arthur said.

Basically, the instream flow relates to the amount of water in streams or reservoirs for environmental, ecological and recreational purposes, as well as making sure reservoirs are adequately filled for consumptive supply, such as drinking water.

The draft report suggests a working group be formed to frame what the instream flow policy should look like, Arthur said.

“Right now, for the most part, the way we appropriate water can allow streams to dry up or get very low on their flow,” Arthur said. “What we want to do is back up and think about is that appropriate, and where might it not be appropriate and what might a solution to that look like — to protect not only environmental issues, but also recreational issues like fishing and hunting and boating and canoeing.”

That issue sticks in the craw of some legislators from southeastern Oklahoma. These lawmakers claim that the issue wasn’t adequately addressed in the plan and could cause non-consumptive water to be labeled as “surplus,” possibly making that water available to be sold to Texas or other areas.

“This is what has got us scared in the eastern part of the state: (The water) could be sold out from underneath us,’” said Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum (pictured right).

“I think in a worst-case scenario, we’re going to have loss of shoreline, the loss of access, and the loss of (tourism),” he said. “It’s hard to actually put a number on it, but it does have kind of a reverse economic effect if we do not protect that water for non-consumptive use.”

Counting crawdads
Cannaday is part of a group of lawmakers requesting an attorney general’s opinion on whether the OWRB has fulfilled its legislative mandate to make a comprehensive report since recreational and environmental uses were not quantified.

Sen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, is also part of that group. He and Cannaday questioned why those factors could not have been included when $14 million was set aside to fund the report.

“I think as far as a comprehensive water plan, they need to start by removing the term ‘comprehensive,’ because I don’t think there’s anything comprehensive about it,” Ellis said. “I told them years ago when they first started this: ‘Don’t go down there and count crawdads for 18 months and come back and tell me I’ve got water to sell to Texas.’ That’s exactly what they’ve done.”

If the water is sold to Texas or some other place, Cannaday said, it could lock the selling entity into an agreement that could not be broken, even if the area’s water levels drop drastically.

“If you have surplus, you can expect some entity to purchase it. Once you allow that and water supply falls, you have downstream dependency and you have to continue selling, even if you are short,” Cannaday said.

Arthur conceded that the study does not contain water demands for the non-consumptive sector, but that it recommends a policy framework be put in place in order to go forward in quantifying those needs.

“We didn’t get a group together for the last five years to end up saying, ‘We need to get a group together,’” Arthur said. “What we did is we said: ‘Here are the things we believe are important that have to be looked at that we don’t know the answer to at this point.’ Clearly, we know recreation is important; clearly, we know environmental issues are important. That’s not the issue. The issue is, how do you develop a policy program in the context of a 50-year-old water-management program so that you insure reliability for all the users?” Defining “excess water” and “surplus water” constitutes the third issue covered by the report, Arthur said.

This issue does not only address out-of-state water transfers, but instate transfers, Arthur said.

The report looks at each particular basin and its future water needs 50 years from now, how much water is in the basin, and future tribal rights that may be determined.

The definition of “surplus water” does not include non-consumptive uses, such as recreational uses, Arthur said.

“When and if those non-consumptive uses and demands are determined — those would be saved back in that basin. They would not be allowed to be transferred out,” Arthur said. “They would not be considered ‘excess or surplus water.’” Arthur said there are two pieces to the puzzle of what constitutes “surplus water” that have yet to be quantified: non-consumptive demands and tribal water rights.

“What we’ve done as an agency is said, ‘We need to address both those things,’” Arthur said. “When (non-consumptive demands and tribal water rights) are determined, they can be plugged into the definition, which allows adequate future protection for the basins of origin. It would look at the legislators’ concerns about water being moved and not protecting the economy of those areas.”

Tribal rights
Oklahoma’s nearly 40 federally recognized Indian tribes also have water rights under treaties and federal law.

“If the tribes do have ownership, how much do they have? To what extent does that affect the water we’ve already appropriated for people to use? It could certainly upset the past, current and future management of water resources. The uncertainty needs to be resolved,” Arthur said.

Stephen Greetham, chief general counsel for the Chickasaw Nation Division of Commerce, said the plan’s recommendation that the governor’s office engage with the tribes to find a collaborative solution is a good starting point, but that until now, the tribes have been shut out of the water-planning process.

“The state is still not adequately dealing with the tribal-state issue,” Greetham said. “Still, all you really have is a report from a contractor hired by an agency. The state itself has yet to step up and engage in that government-to-government relationship.”

Water management
The draft report recommended forming advisory groups to help address two issues regarding water management: seasonal permitting and a fairly controversial issue called “injunctive management.”

Implementing a seasonal permitting policy would allow people to obtain permits to use water only during certain times of the year, Arthur said.

This would prevent too much water being taken during seasonal low points, he said.

“Reliability — that’s the name of the game,” Arthur said. “We’re not trying to regulate somebody for the sake of regulating somebody. What we’re trying to do is inform them and have them look at what the seasonal variations are relative to what their needs are, so they can have a reliable supply.”

Conjunctive management, meanwhile, delves into the controversial issue of public-versus-private-property rights.

In Oklahoma, groundwater is considered private property, while surface water is public. However, some streams are fed by groundwater from alluvial aquifers.

The two water systems are interrelated in that stream level affects the alluvial aquifer underneath it, and the alluvial aquifer level affects the stream above it, Arthur said.

“Here’s the pinch point: We, as an agency, do not regulate those together,” Arthur said. “We do not consider the impact of one on the other when we issue permits determining how much somebody can take.”

According to the draft report, $87 billion in infrastructure will be needed to meet the state’s drinking-water needs. That amount will not be reached unless more project funding is made available, Arthur said.

“The current capacity of those programs, and as we look toward the future capacity of those programs, is not even remotely adequate to meet that future need,” Arthur said.

The infrastructure issue is probably the biggest issue, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any question it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, is infrastructure — our eroding, decaying, inadequate infrastructure,” Arthur said. “We as a state need to step back and take a look at the programs in place and be sure that they are adequate.”

Finally, the draft report designated 13 regional groups to collaborate on water issues and provide recommendations to the OWRB.

Despite the divergent priorities and concerns regarding the water ownership, supply and consumption, all sides agree that water is one of the most important issues facing Oklahoma.

“You’re involved in the water issue for one of two reasons: You’re in it for the money and you’re greedy, or you’re in it for that you want to make sure the present generation and generations to come in Oklahoma will have a reliable source of water and live the American dream to the best of their ability,” Sen. Ellis said. “I don’t care what you want to do in life, you cannot do it without water. I don’t think there’s a price you could put on it.”

Arthur said there will likely be a lot more wrangling over water in the upcoming legislative session and beyond.

“There are a lot of people who believe water will be the issue next session, and the next,” Arthur said.

Photo illustration of the Canadian River and photo of the fishing pier at Lake Stanley Draper by Mark Hancock

Click through to read the OWRB's draft plan.

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