J. D. Strong
From the Director is a column published in the agency's quarterly newsletter, the Oklahoma Water News. The column provides the OWRB Executive Director an opportunity to share his unique viewpoint on pertinent state water issues and discuss various OWRB activities and events.
Another productive and rewarding year is in the books for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and on behalf of our staff here I hope each of you had a great holiday season and will have an even better year to come.
First, I’d like to thank all the attendees, sponsors, speakers, and staff for making this year’s 35th Annual Governor’s Water Conference & Research Symposium a resounding success. I especially want to thank Governor Mary Fallin, US Congressmen Frank Lucas and Markwayne Mullin, Senator-elect James Lankford, as well as our keynote speaker, Patricia Mulroy, and a multitude of other presenters. I also appreciate our Symposium partners, OSU’s Oklahoma Water Resources Center, for their contributions to making the conference Oklahoma’s premiere water policy and research event. And last but not least, congratulations again to our 2014 Oklahoma Water Pioneers, Jack Keeley and Mike Thralls.
I hope everyone enjoyed our format this year, especially with the added focus on roundtable discussions and more opportunities to engage presenters and ask questions. I particularly enjoyed moderating our final session on water rights administration in Oklahoma. In any discussion, whether on topics ranging from water rights to drought preparedness, it’s always important to have diverse perspectives from experts who are working closely on these issues every day. We’re already looking forward to another great conference next year, so I hope you will join us again.
As always, there are several important agency initiatives from 2014 that will continue throughout 2015, many of which you’ll see noted in the “Annual Report” portion of this issue of the Water News. Of particular note, the Water for 2060 Advisory Council held its fourth meeting of the year on November 18. The Council focused on finalizing the draft recommendations for the public water supply, crop irrigation, and industrial/power generation/oil and gas sectors. It was a productive session, and the Council is still on target to complete its report by the fall of 2015 for submission to the Governor and Legislature. I encourage you to check out some of the new resources we’ve created on the OWRB’s Water for 2060 information page at www.owrb.ok.gov/2060.
Another important development from the past few months is the finalization of this year’s updates to the OWRB’s Strategic Plan for 2016-2020. Each year, the OWRB undertakes the strategic planning process to make sure we’ve set a clear path for successfully meeting our mission on behalf of all Oklahoma citizens. I invite you to review the OWRB’s Strategic Plan in the “About Us” section of our website.
I’m especially proud of this year’s iteration of the Strategic Plan as each of our four Divisions have really taken ownership of the overall agency mission and goals, as well as what the plan outlines for each of their respective programs. The divisions also wanted to ensure that the objectives and key performance measures outlined in the Plan are closely aligned with the Priority and Supporting Recommendations featured in the 2012 Update of Oklahoma’s Comprehensive Water Plan. The result, in my opinion, is that we have an agency strategy that is a cohesive and effective resource for managing the OWRB’s multitude of programs and projects.
As we close the chapter on 2014, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some important personnel changes and staff activities from the last year. First, the OWRB became a two-time winner of The Oklahoman’s “Top Oklahoma Workplaces Award.” We remain the only state agency to have achieved the distinction for two consecutive years. As Governor Fallin said herself, “Once again, the OWRB epitomizes the type of efficient and responsible government that our citizens deserve.” However, most important to me is the fact that the OWRB was named a Top Workplace as a result of the anonymous, candid results of employee surveys.
Also, a special thanks to our OWRB staff for another banner year of giving and community involvement. As anyone who follows the OWRB on Twitter has likely seen (follow us at @OKWaterBoard), our employees are committed to public service both in their careers and on their own dime. Whether it’s volunteering for educational programs like ScienceFest and H2Oklahoma, surpassing our agency-wide goal in the State Charitable Campaign, bell-ringing to raise money for the Salvation Army of Oklahoma, or participating in the United Way of Central Oklahoma’s Day of Caring event, our staff gives back with impressive generosity. I’m extremely fortunate to work with a close-knit family of employees that always sacrifices for the betterment of others.
And last but never least, several dear friends and colleagues here at the OWRB retired and moved on to bigger and better pastures. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of our 2014 retirees: Jerry “Rowdy” Barnett, Barry Fogerty, Anita Ray, Kim Sullivan, Brian Vance, and Shelly Whitmire. Thanks to each of you, and indeed to all of our retirees, for helping shape the OWRB into an agency that serves the public with such distinction and commitment.
Summer is winding down, and it’s probably been one of the mildest that I can remember in a long time. With the the milder temps and most welcome moisture through most of June and July, many Oklahomans may have forgotten that there are still large swaths of western Oklahoma facing the crippling effects of four years of drought.
Fortunately, Governor Fallin’s recent announcement of the Water for 2060 Drought Grant Program is welcome news. Through the grant program, we will have $1.5 million available for cities, counties, water districts, and other public entities to help fund drought relief projects that highlight responsible use of water. Those interested should apply for grants prior to the November 26, 2014 deadline. With the grant program announcement, the Water for 2060 Advisory Council’s work throughout the summer, the OWRB and Bureau of Reclamation’s Drought Challenge event in September, several water-related interim studies at the State Legislature, and planning for the 35th annual Governor’s Water Conference in October, it remains an exciting and busy time at the Water Board.
This summer the Water for 2060 Advisory Council continued work with its fourth meeting on August 19th. The meeting focused on water conservation practices and technology for industrial water use—specifically related to electrical power generation, oil and gas production, and other related industries. In addition to the meeting, several members of the Advisory Council joined the Oklahoma Panhandle Agriculture and Irrigation Association, the City of Guymon, and many other Panhandle stakeholders for a field tour in early August of various water conservation initiatives in the region. The Council will meet again on November 18th to begin finalizing recommendations to the Governor and Legislature on how Oklahoma can achieve its ambitious goal of consuming no more freshwater in 2060 than was consumed in 2010.
If the theme in August was largely related to the Water for 2060 Advisory Council, then drought was the focus for a number of events in September. On September 16, the OWRB and the Bureau of Reclamation teamed up to present Oklahoma’s first-ever Drought Challenge at the National Weather Center in Norman. The Drought Challenge was an exciting new approach to promoting drought mitigation and planning. By using a competition format and a fictional water basin as the backdrop, the Drought Challenge aimed to encourage collaboration among water planners and users from various backgrounds and different parts of the state.
The Drought Challenge preceded a two-day Drought Forum hosted by the Western Governors’ Association (WGA), Governor Mary Fallin, and the Office of the Secretary of Energy and Environment. Oklahoma kicked off the first of five planned WGA Drought Forum meetings by hosting “Managing Drought in the Energy Sector” at the National Weather Center on September 18-19. Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, WGA’s current Chairman, created the Drought Forum series as part of the WGA Chairman’s Initiative to foster a regional dialogue in which states and industry can share best practices on drought policy, preparedness, and management.
The Drought Challenge and the WGA Drought Forum weren’t the only recent events to take a detailed look at water-related issues. The leadership of both the State House and Senate approved several water-focused interim studies for the late summer and fall. These interim studies are important forums during the legislative “offseason” for providing our state’s elected officials with the opportunity to investigate a multitude of important issues facing water planning and water use throughout Oklahoma.
So far, I’ve had the honor of presenting at State Representative Steve Vaughn’s interim study on groundwater use related to energy production in Oklahoma. In October, there will be additional interim studies that either focus on water solely, or that feature water-related topics on their periphery. For example, at an upcoming interim study to be lead by State Representatives Mark McBride and Jon Echols in October, I will provide attendees with an update on all that has been accomplished, as well as all that remains to be completed, since the 2012 Update of the Comprehensive Water Plan was completed. I look forward to providing the panel with several remaining legislative opportunities that are included in the OCWP’s list of Priority and Supporting Recommendations.
Last, but never least, it’s the time of year when we are fast approaching the 35th Annual Governor’s Water Conference and Research Symposium. The theme for this year’s conference is “Every Drop Counts.” For a complete picture of this year’s water conference, which will be held October 22-23 at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City, please check the OWRB’s conference page regularly for updates. As always, we have a great lineup of speakers, presentations, and forums this year, including a keynote address from Patricia Mulroy, principal architect and former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Governor Mary Fallin; Congressmen James Lankford, Frank Lucas, and Markwayne Mullin; EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Sam Coleman; and a number of other regional and national figures are also scheduled to discuss a wide-range of water-related topics.
To register, visit our website at www.owrb.ok.gov/GWC or call us at 405-530-8800. Please take note that our next Board meeting has been moved to coincide with that event following adjournment on the conference’s last day.
Summer is officially in full swing, which means another session of the Oklahoma Legislature is behind us. With the exception of a 5.5% cut in state appropriations to the OWRB and most other agencies, the 2014 session was mostly positive. Importantly, the Legislature ultimately failed to act on the OWRB’s proposed rules, including important well-spacing rules for sensitive sole-source aquifers like the Arbuckle-Simpson. After Board approval last March, agency rules were submitted to the State Legislature for consideration. Though the Legislature failed to act on the OWRB’s proposed rule package, along with those of most other state agencies, recent law changes provide the Governor with final authority to certify them as approved or not approved. I am pleased to report that Governor Fallin approved the OWRB’s proposed rules on June 19, and they are expected to take effect later this fall.
In other water policy news, every legislator I met with this session remained focused on the affects of the state’s on-going drought. This focus, reflected in a number of proposed bills, was most apparent in the Legislature’s appropriation of an additional $1.5 million for emergency drought grants despite the slight decrease in funds for agency appropriations. We look forward to working with community water systems in the most drought ravaged parts of Oklahoma to help them develop more reliable water supplies for our citizens. Additional help in this regard should come from SB 1187 by Senator Rob Standridge and Representative Scott Martin, which calls for a more expedited process for water reuse projects in Oklahoma. Several communities across the state have expressed increasing interest in water reuse projects as a means to combat water shortages and develop alternative supplies. Ultimately signed into law by Governor Fallin on May 28, SB 1187 aligns nicely with the mission of Oklahoma’s Water for 2060.
While on the subject, the Water for 2060 Advisory Council held its third meeting on May 20 to focus largely on compiling and prioritizing recommendations on water conservation best-practices and technology for both irrigators and public water systems. The next meeting will be held early this fall and will feature presentations on commercial and industrial water conservation. The council’s final report is due to the State Legislature by the end of 2015, and I have no doubt we will meet that deadline. The Water for 2060 Advisory Council’s work is even more significant as we witness the continued impacts that long-term drought is having on fresh water supplies in many Oklahoma communities.
Speaking of the drought, some much-needed rain fell in May and June in areas of the state that had received relatively no precipitation for many months. According to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, May 21 was an important turning point for much of the state’s drought impacted areas. In fact, the period from May 21 to June 17 was the 24th wettest period since at least 1921 with an average of 5.49 inches of observed rainfall across the state. Even so, much of southern Oklahoma has seen lower rain totals during this short-term “wet” period, and the long-term drought remains firmly in place throughout a large portion of Oklahoma. The OWRB recently launched a drought related website—drought.ok.gov—to help bring together the most commonly used state and federal drought related tools and information. I encourage you to check it often and to send us any drought related information you’d like to see added.
On the Federal front, I had the honor of testifying to Congress in mid-June on behalf of the Western Governors’ Association, Western States Water Council and the State of Oklahoma. The Water and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing focused on the EPA and Corps of Engineers’ proposed rule for defining “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) under the Clean Water Act (CWA). My testimony focused on the lack of meaningful consultation between the Federal agencies and the states. As co-regulators of the CWA, multiple programs that are administered by the OWRB and ODEQ could be significantly impacted by the proposed definition. Similarly, many water users, businesses, agriculture producers, and public water systems will be impacted by this new definition and its concomitant regulatory ramifications. While the Corps and EPA’s stated goal for this rule is to bring greater clarification to the WOTUS definition, the lack of consultation with states and myriad ambiguous provisions in the current proposed rule leave me convinced we may be better off without it.
In conclusion, I’m excited to announce that we have finalized the dates and location for the 35th Annual Governor’s Water Conference. This year’s conference will be held October 22-23 at the Renaissance Hotel and Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City. Already, we are booking an exciting lineup of speakers and looking forward to another great conference with our fellow Oklahomans.
From our friends at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, I just learned that March was the 7th consecutive month—and the 30th out of the last 42—that Oklahoma’s statewide average precipitation total dipped below normal. Since this devastating drought began around October 2010, the cumulative statewide precipitation deficit is 29 inches.
There appears to be no end to the drought, which is already responsible for billions of dollars in damages to the state’s economy. While all Oklahomans hope and pray that conditions improve, Water Board staff work tirelessly to address an increasing number of drought-related issues. We are processing a record number of permit applications—many within days of receipt—and responding to dozens of citizen complaints.
Fortunately for particularly hard-hit areas of western Oklahoma, on March 20, the Oklahoma Emergency Drought Relief Commission awarded more than $1 million to the community water systems of Altus, Guymon, Hollis, and Tipton. These Emergency Drought Relief grants, which were made available through Governor Fallin’s drought declaration in those respective counties last October, should at least temper local impacts through implementation of much-needed drought mitigation and related water projects. In addition to the Governor’s leadership, this critically important funding received strong support from Senators Mike Schulz, Don Barrington, and Bryce Marlatt, as well as State Representatives Don Armes, Charles Ortega, and Gus Blackwell, whose districts are currently facing exceptional drought-related problems.
Speaking of Sen. Shulz, his Drought Proof Communities Act of 2014 (Senate Bill 1430) has passed the Senate and has been referred to the House Appropriation and Budget Committee. The proposed act would improve the OWRB’s ability to provide financial assistance to small communities with aging and deteriorating water infrastructure. Monies appropriated through the act to the OWRB’s Financial Assistance Program would be expended solely for the benefit of public systems serving fewer than 7,000 customers with priority afforded to municipalities or rural water districts serving less than 1,750 customers. Available monies may also be expended for community efforts to identify drought vulnerabilities and implement various water conservation strategies, including system water loss audits, implementation of water reuse, and related measures.
In February, Water for 2060 Advisory Council members heard from Fred Fischer, a Panhandle irrigator and member of the Oklahoma Panhandle Agriculture and Irrigation Association. Joined by Jerry Wiebe, fellow Panhandle irrigator and council member, and Mark Nichols, former OWRB chairman from the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District, the three gentlemen provided impressive examples of conservation measures that are collectively resulting in significantly reduced water usage. The crop irrigation sector, which is responsible for almost 40 percent of statewide water use, will play a major role in achieving our statewide goal of consuming no more fresh water in 2060 than we consume today. OWRB staff and partners attending last month’s “Hot Spot” meeting in Goodwell were also afforded an opportunity to tour Mr. Fischer’s state-of-the-art farming operation.
The Hot Spot meetings, hosted by the OWRB in March and April, provided us with invaluable public input as we research the most effective ways to address anticipated water supply deficits in our most water-challenged areas. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many Oklahoma citizens are open to expansion of water recycling and reuse projects. These projects have tremendous promise in reducing Oklahoma’s water footprint and will no doubt be well-represented in the Water for 2060 Advisory Council’s final report to the Governor and Legislature in 2015.
Prompted by a 2003 law change and informed by more than a decade of study, numerous public meetings with citizens and stakeholders, and a meticulous hearing process, OWRB members voted in October to approve staff’s recommendation setting a new 0.2 acre-feet per acre per year (AFY) equal proportionate share (EPS) withdrawal rate for the Arbuckle-Simpson aquifer. The decision—long-awaited by many, especially those living in and around the south central Oklahoma region—was both a controversial and consequential one.
The Arbuckle-Simpson aquifer is the sole drinking water source for many cities and towns, including Ada and Sulphur, a vital component of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, and key to the overall economic prosperity of south central Oklahoma. While the OWRB is typically guided by the state’s long-standing groundwater law in conducting maximum annual yield investigations of Oklahoma’s major groundwater basins, heightened concern for the Arbuckle-Simpson required that its study incorporate a whole new level of complexity—a legislative mandate to establish a withdrawal rate that would not reduce the natural flows of area springs and streams. That requirement not only necessitated an unprecedented level of data collection and monitoring, as well as significant funding to accomplish that work, but also revealed from the outset that the final EPS would likely result in much tighter restrictions on future withdrawals from the aquifer.
Prior to deliberating the action that would reduce the aquifer’s EPS to one-tenth of its current default withdrawal limit, OWRB Board members were required to carefully consider the rippling impacts of their decision. At the Board meeting, parties on each side of the issue—including municipal officials; representatives of the Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer (CPASA), National Park Service, and Nature Conservancy; and legal counsel for local landowners—were provided a final opportunity to express their views. Chief among their concerns was implementation, specifically the time allotted for water users to address the considerable need for additional water and property rights and related management issues. In the end, exhibiting confidence in the work of countless experts and OWRB staff, along with the promise that the agency would develop a fair and sensible implementation strategy, the Board approved the new EPS.
As evidenced by three subsequent court filings, not everyone agrees with the Board’s decision, declaring that the number should be higher or lower, that it should be slightly more or less protective of the resource. But what can’t be argued is that sound science and data—utilizing the unique parameters mandated under Senate Bill 288—led to a fair and logical conclusion. On both the science and legal/policy front, the process was strengthened by experienced professionals utilizing the latest technology, extensive public information, and a well-planned rule-making and hearing procedure.
From a more general viewpoint, widespread interest in the Arbuckle-Simpson issue points out an encouraging trend. As we witnessed in developing the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan, citizens are now more aware of water-related issues. And they are more vocal than ever before in advocating their particular interests in Oklahoma’s surface and groundwater supplies. As I’ve said many times before, the subject of water isn’t going away anytime soon. And that’s a good thing.
In late October, the OWRB and Water Resources Research Center co-hosted another great Water Conference where more than 400 conferees heard from various state and national speakers. In addition to two fascinating roundtable sessions, discussion of prospects for drought in the state and region, and exploration of various conservation successes, the concurrent Research Symposium provided a forum for researchers and academia to present the latest in water research. And it was a great pleasure to present a predecessor of mine, former OWRB Director Patty Eaton, and long-time U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, Bob Blazs, with 2013 Oklahoma Water Pioneer Awards.
The OWRB also received incredible recognition recently when the agency was named one of The Oklahoman’s Top Workplaces—the only state agency among 50 organizations. The list was compiled solely from employee surveys. It’s an enormous honor that directly reflects the supreme professionalism of our employees, both past and present, and unique pride they have for the OWRB.
As temperatures drop, the irrigation season winds down, and communities ease up on their water usage, the multi-year Oklahoma drought continues to hang on. In September, folks in many areas—including, surprisingly, the Panhandle—received much-needed rainfall, which provided some temporary relief. Unfortunately, southwest Oklahoma wasn’t so lucky, and it remains the most consistently dry region of the state since the beginning of the current drought episode in late 2010. Still, much of our state remains in drought, reminding us yet again that only time, and a lot of rainfall events, can bring us out of such dire, long-term disasters. And should the drought suddenly “end,” the devastating impact to Oklahoma’s economy will extend for years.
While we can’t make it rain, the state will soon be in a much better position both to provide an immediate helping hand to those ravaged by drought and to make our communities and rural areas more resistant to future drought events. The new Emergency Drought Relief Fund, approved last legislative session, makes $3 million available for drought mitigation and projects. We are working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and Conservation Commission to determine project eligibility and expenditure guidance.
The first meeting of the Water for 2060 Advisory Council was held on August 20 at the OWRB. While this get-together primarily served to provide initial guidance to the 14 appointed members, we had excellent discourse about how potential conservation measures might impact various water users and constituency groups. It is evident to me that their minds are wide open to the consideration of new conservation strategies, incentives, and technologies as well as the creation of “new” supplies through utilization of unconventional water sources. I’m excited to lead this exceptional group over the next few years as we work cooperatively to develop Oklahoma’s first statewide water conservation plan.
I want to congratulate Michael Teague, who Governor Fallin recently appointed as Oklahoma’s first Cabinet Secretary of Energy and Environment. Secretary Teague brings unique experience to this new combined post. As the recent District Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa District, he was the leader of one of the OWRB’s most important planning partners. I look forward to working closely with Secretary Teague on the many issues facing our water supplies as a critically important element in both energy production and environmental sustainability in Oklahoma.
At the same time, I will miss Gary Sherrer, Oklahoma’s former Secretary of Environment, who stepped down on July 1 to pursue other interests. As Gov. Fallin stated in her announcement, Gary was especially gifted in obtaining consensus among people with diverse interests and agendas. He remains a model of dedicated public service.
On another related note, I welcome Col. Richard Pratt, who assumes the Corps’ leadership role in the Tulsa District region. Both Col. Pratt and Secretary Teague will speak back-to-back during the October 22 Governor’s Water Conference luncheon.
For a complete picture of the 34th Annual Governor’s Water Conference, which will be held October 22-23 at the Reed Center in Midwest City, refer to the draft agenda in this issue of the “Water News.” We’ve got yet another impressive lineup, including keynote speaker Steve Solomon, author of “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization.” Also appearing will be Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, EPA Regional Administrator Ron Curry, and a number of other national figures to discuss wide-ranging water topics. To register, visit the OWRB’s website or call us at 405-530-8800. In conclusion, please take note that our next Board meeting has been moved to coincide with that event following adjournment on the last day.
While the recently concluded legislative session was relatively quiet on the water front—especially compared to last year’s flood of landmark water legislation—there were a few measures of note.
HB 2193 outlines procedures for the OWRB to properly administer the new Water Infrastructure Credit Enhancement Reserve Fund. The Fund, authorized through passage of State Question 764 last November, enables Oklahoma to meet its projected $82 billion water and wastewater infrastructure needs through 2060, a priority initiative of the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan.
SB 965, which transitions the nine-member OWRB Board from its long-standing Congressional District and at-large representation to a new regional scheme, passed by one vote just before the Legislature adjourned on May 24. This change loosely mirrors the eight 1995 OCWP planning regions plus a ninth in the Panhandle. The measure takes effect in 2014 and will be slowly phased in over the coming years.
A new Emergency Drought Relief Fund, enabled through HB 1923, includes $3 million for future drought mitigation and projects. While details have yet to be resolved, in the event of a gubernatorial drought declaration, expenditures will be approved through an Emergency Drought Commission consisting of the Secretary of Agriculture and Executive Directors of the OWRB and Oklahoma Conservation Commission.
While no bills were passed to implement a true regional water planning program, the most popular recommendation of the OCWP and the only priority initiative yet to be implemented, last year’s increased appropriations to implement OCWP priorities were left intact. And not only were efforts to repeal the groundbreaking Water for 2060 Act soundly rejected, all appointments have now been made to the Advisory Council envisioned under that legislation, passed last year. Lastly, all of the OWRB’s new rules, including those to implement the new mining pit water regulations in the Arbuckle-Simpson, were approved by the Governor and Legislature.
There have been several recent developments of note in lawsuits involving the OWRB. Of course, Oklahoma’s resounding victory in Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann is first and foremost.
Following presentation of oral arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 23, the justices deliberated the complicated details of interstate water apportionment envisioned under the Red River Compact. Oklahoma’s case was strong, as nine other states formally supported our position while Tarrant received such support from only one state: its home state of Texas. These states, including two other Red River Compact members, share our view that Tarrant is wrong in its interpretation of our long-settled agreement over the apportionment of shared waters. The court’s favorable decision, announced June 13, will end, once and for all, the repeated attempts by North Texas entities to undermine Oklahoma’s water management authority.
In late April, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a ruling in the lawsuit brought against the OWRB and its ongoing process for determining the maximum annual yield for the Arbuckle-Simpson aquifer. While the Court directed the OWRB’s hearing examiner to provide the parties with additional notice and opportunity to respond to certain communications, we are encouraged that they generally upheld the integrity of our hearing process. We remain hopeful this important matter can be brought to the Board for final consideration very soon.
While last year’s unprecedented passage of water legislation provides reassurance that Oklahoma is on a constructive path toward a more secure water future, this current session has been much more subdued from a water perspective. As always, OWRB staff are assisting our lawmakers as they address constantly evolving water issues, especially in light of a third straight year of statewide drought.
Notable bills filed early on referenced such topics as individual drought relief funding for farmers, ranchers and other rural citizens, establishment of regional water planning groups, wastewater reuse, and expanded Water Board membership and representation. Some of these ideas were included in priority and supporting initiatives identified in the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan and deserve attention.
The OWRB continues working with the Legislature to foster measures that protect and improve Oklahoma’s water resources, especially the Water for 2060 Act, which was sponsored last session by House Speaker Kris Steele and passed with bipartisan support. This forward-thinking legislation arose from one of the Water Plan’s most fundamental grassroots suggestions in recommending water usage levels and conservation measures for the next half century. The Act establishes a statewide conservation goal, a funding mechanism for pilot conservation projects, and an advisory council to contemplate incentives and other measures that have promise in reducing Oklahoma’s water footprint. Conservation, our cheapest source of water, remains Oklahoma’s most viable and accessible planning strategy to avoid inevitable water deficits.
A commitment to conservation, along with dependable infrastructure, is our best defense against drought. By now, we should all be familiar with the extreme variability of Oklahoma’s precipitation, both geographically and on an annual basis. What better example is there than this ongoing drought episode, which comes right on the heels of the longest sustained period of statewide precipitation in more than a century? We must all resist the tendency to accept these last few decades of plentiful water resources as “normal” and become lackadaisical—at precisely the wrong time if history is any indication—in planning for an inevitable and perhaps just as lengthy period of dryness.
On a related note, the OCWP Instream Flow Workgroup reconvened on March 1. You may recall that the group was originally commissioned during the OCWP update process to conduct an independent technical, legal, and policy analysis of a potential instream flow program in Oklahoma. At this initial meeting, we had some very beneficial discussion concerning the development of recommendations that effectively balance the water needs of consumptive users with those relying upon water in our streams and lakes for economic development and recreation.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who participated in our annual Water Appreciation Day at the State Capitol on March 19. Each year, this popular event serves to remind Oklahomans that dozens of state and federal water organizations are constantly working on their behalf and improving the management and protection of Oklahoma’s invaluable water resources. I am personally reminded each Water Day how proud I am to lead a key agency in this worthwhile endeavor.
It was great to return to Tulsa for the Governor’s Water Conference in November. Once again, we had an extraordinary turnout and stimulating discourse on Oklahoma’s water issues. Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Jr., and Dayton Duncan, principle writer and co-producer of the newly released Dust Bowl documentary, got the conference off to a wonderful start, and our unique “roundtable” sessions highlighted a particularly diverse agenda.
It has been an eventful year since unanimous OWRB approval of the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan (OCWP). Many OCWP recommendations that originated from the public input process are now being implemented due to tremendous support from Governor Fallin and the State Legislature. New legislation has provided the impetus and tools that will help ensure reliable supplies of water for all Oklahomans through 2060 and beyond, while also making Oklahoma a leader among western states in the water management arena.
Seven years ago, as OWRB staff developed the early blueprint for the 2012 OCWP Update, we deliberated several different paths. Clearly, we would need to conduct a comprehensive inventory of Oklahoma’s water supplies and project future demands for all water use sectors. This necessitated an analysis at the local or system level using hydrologic, rather than political, boundaries. At that time, we were aware that the state’s public water supply infrastructure was ill-equipped to address its rapidly growing population. We would need to assess the projected needs of the state’s water and wastewater facilities and identify funding mechanisms sufficient to meet these needs. All of this information would then be used to identify options—including development of new sources, augmentation of existing supplies, or improved management schemes—that could prevent projected water deficits or “gaps” wherever they were likely to occur.
While the technical aspects of our planning strategy were sound, it was clear to us from the outset that OCWP success would rest entirely upon involving Oklahomans in the process, listening to their concerns, and obtaining grassroots support. To meet this challenge, we teamed with the Oklahoma Water Resources Research Institute and fanned out across the state to document constructive opinions of Oklahoma citizens regarding the most pressing water-related issues. The resulting product, refined and submitted to intense scrutiny at more than a hundred public meetings, became the basis for OCWP recommendations, including eight priority initiatives that are now well on their way to implementation.
With this most recent OCWP update in place, the issue of water—as with the economy, energy, education, or roads—is here to stay in the public’s consciousness and discourse. On behalf of the Board, OWRB colleagues and planning partners, we are enormously encouraged to see how much importance Oklahomans now place on both the utilization and protection of their water resources.
We will certainly need continued support of OCWP initiatives, especially as we close the books on the warmest and driest year that most Oklahomans have ever experienced. Drought in Oklahoma should no longer be considered a “phenomenon” or unusual occurrence. We must expect it, prepare for it, and adjust to it through strengthened water policies and programs.
Through the Executive Report, 13 Watershed Planning Region Reports, and other OCWP products resulting from the detailed analysis of water resources, limitations, and options statewide, the 2012 OCWP Update provides an invaluable source of information for dealing with drought and related water supply issues. Water managers and decision-makers at every level can benefit from this extensive groundwork as they develop plans for meeting their long-term water needs well into the future.
In conclusion, I’d like to remind everyone that our annual Water Appreciation Day will be held March 19 at the State Capitol. I encourage everyone to join us as water agencies and organizations gather to demonstrate the infinite importance of Oklahoma’s water resources.
In July, I had the honor of testifying before the congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to provide one state’s viewpoint on the value of drought monitoring and forecasting specific to implementation of the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS). With virtually the entire nation suffering from an extended drought episode and our weather prediction capabilities more refined than ever, establishment of an effective drought early warning system has never been more important, or more within our grasp. This is one of the primary federal directives of NIDIS, created in 2006 to improve the coordination of meaningful drought research and prediction.
Oklahoma, like the nation in general, remains largely vulnerable to the vagaries of drought and its considerable economic and social impacts. Drought is now largely accepted as a normal aspect of our climate. Reducing its impacts requires improved insight—targeted research, long-term monitoring, and development of tools that enhance our ability to predict the probability of drought, or at least detect its early onset, so that states can effectively prepare for these disasters. Through improved weather technology—bolstered in large part through our research community at the National Weather Center in Norman—and support from both the states and Congress, I am confident we can achieve this worthy goal.
Prediction aside, to truly address drought’s devastating impacts we must first change our attitudes. Typically, we ignore drought until the situation is dire, lament the impacts, and justifiably call for help. But invariably it rains, at which point we forget there was ever a problem and go back to business as usual. We must break this “hydro-illogical” cycle.
As recurring drought episodes become more disastrous, we must consider water conservation not as a short-term fix but a long-term necessity. The first step, enabled through a priority recommendation of the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan (OCWP) and subsequent passage of the Water for 2060 Act, will be development of feasible strategies to maintain statewide consumption of fresh water at current levels through 2060. I am confident that we can reach this lofty goal, not just through additional conservation measures but also by implementing incentives to promote more widespread reuse and recycling of wastewater and desalination of brackish water. Such actions could delay or even alleviate localized water shortages projected by the OCWP.
It should be no surprise to anyone that conservation will also be a focus of this year’s Governor’s Water Conference, which will be held November 13-14 at the Southern Hills Marriott in Tulsa. In addition to sessions highlighting the latest developments related to water management and quality, infrastructure financing, and other essential water matters, we have invited speakers from all over the country and from many disciplines to detail innovative examples of water conservation, efficiency and reuse. Reflecting last session’s legislation, the Conference theme (as well as the state’s new conservation awareness initiative) is “Water for 2060.”
I am tremendously excited to announce that this year’s keynote address will be delivered by Dayton Duncan, an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker. Duncan’s latest film project, on which he served as principal writer, is entitled “The Dust Bowl,” a two-part series airing November 18 and 19 on the Public Broadcasting System and premiering, in part, at the Governor’s Water Conference. Collaborating with renowned documentarian Ken Burns, Duncan’s latest project provides a stark reminder of what previous generations of Oklahomans learned the hard way—conservation and wise use of our water and other natural resources is a basic necessity in preparing for the inevitable, devastating droughts to come.
With an agenda featuring something for everyone, I urge all Oklahomans to join us for two days of riveting water discussion. Registration is available via our website at www.owrb.ok.gov. See you in Tulsa!
Thanks to an unprecedented level of support from Governor Fallin, the State Legislature, citizens, and many in the water user community during the recently concluded legislative session, implementation of the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan is off to a magnificent start.
On the heels of the most scientifically defensible and extensively vetted Water Plan ever developed by the state, our leaders responded with perhaps the most meaningful collection of water policy legislation and funding in Oklahoma history. As a result, we now have both the directive and tools necessary to meet head-on Oklahoma’s water challenges through revitalized and innovative water management and protection programs.
Through passage of Speaker Kris Steele’s Water for 2060 Act, water conservation took a giant leap forward as Oklahoma becomes the first state in the nation to establish a comprehensive, statewide goal of consuming no more fresh water in 2060 than is consumed today. Through House Bill 3055, a 15-member advisory council will be created to recommend appropriate water conservation practices, incentives, and educational programs to accomplish this bold strategy, while at the same time ensuring that Oklahoma’s population and economy continue to grow and prosper. In addition, HB 2835, by Rep. Scott Martin, will result in fresh water conservation through incentives to encourage the recycling of gray water. The resulting new law exempts from regulatory requirements the use of up to 250 gallons per day of private, residential gray water for household gardening, composting, or landscape irrigation.
Equally important was the required first step taken by legislators in addressing Oklahoma’s projected $82 billion water and wastewater infrastructure financing needs through HJR 1085 by Rep. Phil Richardson and Sen. Brian Crain. The resolution authorizes State Question 764 on the November general election ballot, which seeks voter approval of a new Water Infrastructure Credit Enhancement Reserve Fund. This crucial new fund would enable the OWRB, the primary source of water and sewer infrastructure financing in Oklahoma, to increase its leveraging capacity. Over the next several months, you’ll be hearing much more about SQ 764 and its importance to our ability to provide safe, dependable, and affordable water supplies to Oklahomans into the foreseeable future.
Last but certainly not least, the FY-2013 budget agreement includes specific funding to expand and integrate the state’s water quality and quantity monitoring programs, another key grass-roots provision of the OCWP. Sediment, pathogenic bacteria, toxic algae, and a host of other pollutants and contaminants threaten both Oklahoma’s water resources and our public’s health. The decisions we make each day to ensure safe, reliable water for our citizens and communities require constant monitoring of water quality and quantity, an abundance of data, and advanced modeling techniques. Such capabilities will be enabled through an additional $2 million in appropriations to the OWRB and Conservation Commission. Most notably, the OWRB will use a portion of the funding to establish the state’s first comprehensive groundwater monitoring program. The Legislature also extended utilization of Gross Production Tax proceeds for OCWP implementation, including support of planning partnership opportunities, updates of hydrologic studies, and enhancement of water management and modeling tools.
In all, accomplishments from the 2012 legislative session will accelerate implementation of at least half of the eight priority recommendations included in the 2012 OCWP Update (Water Quality and Quantity Monitoring; Water Supply Reliability; Water Conservation, Efficiency, Recycling and Reuse; and Water Project and Infrastructure Funding). Additional legislation providing for improved enforcement of water well drilling regulations and enhanced floodplain management rules address at least two OCWP supporting recommendations.
While we are off to a tremendous start on Water Plan implementation, much work remains to truly ensure the sound water future envisioned by the OCWP. Regional planning, for example, was the most popular Water Plan recommendation among citizen participants because it allows them to engage more formally in how water resources are planned at the local level and managed by the state. Unfortunately, enabling legislation was narrowly defeated due to the negative lobbying efforts of certain special interest groups. Additionally, we must redouble our efforts to work with Oklahoma’s tribal governments to resolve conflicting water issues and we still need to ensure adequate protection of instream flows that are so critical to state and local tourism economies. We look forward to working with our multitude of partners and leaders at the State Capitol to advance these critical issues as well.
The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations sued the State of Oklahoma in August, claiming they deserved control over the water resources in 22 counties in southeastern Oklahoma. If successful, the tribes would assume responsibility for Oklahoma’s most precious resource even though the state has provided more than 100 years of uninterrupted leadership experience in managing our waters and meeting our future water needs. Our laws and long legacy of water management ensure stability of water use and protection and avoid the potentially devastating economic consequences resulting from instability. The state has tried, and remains interested in, settling the dispute outside of court, but the tribes refuse to drop their lawsuit, thus sacrificing the security and prosperity of all Oklahomans.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board has been serving Oklahomans as their water management authority since 1957. We take the job seriously. Our highest objective is to ensure certainty and security of water rights and associated uses. Consistent with this obligation, the OWRB and the state will defend our citizens against tribal claims with a general stream adjudication, which is well recognized among western states as the most effective, reliable way to resolve such disputes.
Through adjudication, which the tribes asked for more than a dozen times in their lawsuit, the Oklahoma Supreme Court will make a legal determination regarding the validity of all claims to the waters of the Kiamichi, Muddy Boggy, and Clear Boggy stream systems. The court will confirm the amount, priority, place, and purpose of each use. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the process should be relatively uncomplicated and should not require a lawyer for those holding permits. The state already has determined the amount, priority, place, and purpose of those permit holders’ uses.
While the process could be considerably more complicated for anyone claiming water rights without a permit (i.e., the tribes), there simply is no better way to afford every Oklahoman with water rights the equal and fair opportunity they deserve to protect those rights. All 18 western states have laws allowing for general stream adjudication, and 13 of those states have adjudications underway.
To confuse the matter and spread misleading information, the tribes have launched an unprecedented media campaign that questions state efforts to plan for and protect Oklahoma’s water resources. The tribes portray themselves as the true stewards of the water, but that does not square with the facts. Only the state possesses the authority and expertise to comprehensively manage and protect our citizens’ surface and groundwater resources, and only the state has laws dedicated to protecting and maintaining the water rights of all Oklahomans.
We remain committed to mediation as the most desired outcome of the tribal lawsuit against Oklahoma. However, until tribal leaders agree to drop their lawsuit, we will continue to vigorously defend and protect our state’s water, all of its uses, and our citizens’ rights through adjudication, litigation or any other means necessary.
4th Quarter 2011
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