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OCWP Instream Flow Workgroup
First commissioned in 2009, the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan (OCWP) Instream Flow Workgroup conducted independent technical, legal, and policy analysis and developed a process to ascertain the suitability and structure of an instream flow program for Oklahoma.
Further consideration of an Instream Flow program became a priority recommendation of the 2012 OCWP Update, which specifically recommends adherence to the following process developed by the OCWP Instream Flow Workgroup:
The Instream Flow Advisory Group was created in 2013 to preserve and continue the efforts of the OCWP Instream Flow Workgroup. The Advisory Group meets regularly to discuss whether and how an instream flow program might be implemented in Oklahoma, including the possible development of a draft ISF methodology and performance of a pilot study in a designated watershed.
Advisory Group Organizations and Representatives
The meaning of the term “instream flows” has evolved over the years but usually describes the amount of water set aside in a stream or river to ensure downstream environmental, social and economic benefits are met (Instream Flow Issues & Recommendations, OCWP Supplemental Report, February 2011).
Minimum streamflows can contribute to the basic ecological integrity of the aquatic environment, support endangered species, and facilitate interstate compact compliance. Tourism and recreation, Oklahoma’s third largest industry, relies heavily upon dependable streamflows. This industry generates more than $6 billion per year while fish and wildlife enthusiasts alone spend upwards of $1.3 billion annually. While there are definite benefits in maintaining minimum instream flows in some Oklahoma streams, there are likewise valid concerns to consider, such as potential impacts to consumptive users due to reduced water availability, changes in the location of that availability, and related economic development implications.
TheOCWP Instream Flow Workgroup conducted a thorough review of existing ISF programs in Oklahoma as well as in surrounding and western states. The majority of western states manage water via an appropriation system where water rights are granted for beneficial uses to fulfill irrigation, industrial, and municipal needs. Beginning in the 1970s, a number of western states began to incorporate ISFs, including protection for hydropower and navigation uses, into their existing appropriation systems.
The terminology and mechanisms used to legally protect ISFs vary from state to state. Some states issue specific water rights for ISFs while others set aside ISF reservations or environmental flows. Kansas does not have ISF water rights or reservations but uses "minimum desirable streamflow" as established by its legislature in 1984. Texas and California also do not have ISF water rights, but those states issue permits for new water uses conditioned for environmental flows. Oklahoma and North Dakota are the only two western states that do not legally define ISFs. While ISFs are not specifically defined in Oklahoma water law, they receive indirect flow contributions through the state's current water use programs and policies, including appropriative water rights, domestic use protection rules, the Scenic Rivers Act, reservoir release schedules, and interstate stream compacts.
Although Oklahoma does not have a formal ISF program, such flows are considered at least partially protected under existing state programs and policies.
OWRB Domestic Use Policy
Scenic Rivers and Outstanding Resource Waters
The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act (82 O.S. Sections 1451-1471) contains provisions concerning the maintenance of the "free-flowing" condition of scenic rivers. The Act describes scenic streams and rivers as those that "possess… unique natural scenic beauty, water conservation, fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation values of present and future benefit to the people of Oklahoma." The mission of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission is to preserve and protect the aesthetic, scenic, historic, araeological and scientific features of the Illinois River and its tributaries (Lee Creek, Little Lee Creek, Baron [Barren] Fork Creek and Flint Creek) and the Upper Mountain Fork, all located in eastern Oklahoma. The free-flowing conditions of the six currently classified scenic rivers in Oklahoma are generally protected from impoundment. In addition to the standard considerations, the OWRB must consider several special, more restrictive, factors when determining water available for appropriation in scenic river watersheds. In 2002, the Board completed an instream flow study of the Baron Fork River and implemented a minimum instream flow of 50 cubic feet per second to be maintained before stream water can be diverted by Adair County Rural Water District 5.
ISFs can also include those flows designated for release from a reservoir to regulate or maintain conditions downstream.
Interstate River Compacts
Interstate stream water compacts may also provide some protection or guarantee of minimum flows that must enter Oklahoma from upstream compact states and exit Oklahoma to downstream compact states. For each of the four compacts to which Oklahoma is party, compliance may be enforced at specific geographic locations, although typically the compacts contain few or no specific measures for allocating flows among tributaries upstream of a designated compliance point. While unique and often complex compact regulations make it difficult to quantify the specific ISF benefits associated with state obligations, they potentially provide for some level of ISF-related protection in many of the state's major river systems and their tributaries.
©1998-2013, Oklahoma Water Resources Board
Page last updated: December 09, 2013