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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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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

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’
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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).

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
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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

— 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

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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