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Instream Flow

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:

  1. Address the legal and policy questions.
  2. Study other mechanisms for protecting instream flows.
  3. Develop a draft methodology for instream flow studies in Oklahoma.
  4. Conduct a study on the economic impacts of instream flows in Oklahoma.
  5. Perform an instream flow pilot study in a scenic river.
  6. Preserve the Instream Flow Workgroup.

download PDF ISF Background Report
download PDF 2012 OCWP Instream Flow Issues and Recommendations Report
download PDF 2012 OCWP Instream Flow Workgroup Considerations Summary Presentation
download PDF Instream Flows in Oklahoma and the West (technical memorandum)


What are Instream Flows?

Existing Mechanisms That Potentially Contribute to Instream Flows in Oklahoma

Instream Flow Advisory Group

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.

NewSummary of Instream Flow Advisory Group Activities and Recommendations (June 2014)
NewInstream Flow Pilot Study Approach (Revised June 15, 2014)



Advisory Group Chair:

J.D. Strong, OWRB Executive Director

Advisory Group Organizations and Representatives:

  • Oklahoma Dept. of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Jim Reese)
  • Oklahoma Dept. of Environmental Quality (Mark Derichswieler)
  • Oklahoma Dept. of Wildlife Conservation (Barry Bolton)
  • Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation (Tom Creider)
  • Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce (Arnella Karges)
  • Oklahoma Conservation Commission (Brooks Tramell)
  • Office of the Secretary of Energy & Environment (Tyler Powell)
  • Oklahoma City Water & Wastewater Utilities Dept. (Marsha Slaughter)
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Kevin Stubbs)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Geological Survey (Shannon Brewer)
  • U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Jeff Tompkins)
  • The Cherokee Nation (Tom Elkins)
  • Oklahoma Farm Bureau (Marla Peek)
  • Oklahoma Rural Water Association (James Gammill)
  • Oklahoma Municipal League (Diane Pedicord)
  • Oklahoman Independent Petroleum Association (Brian Woodard)
  • Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association (Michael Kelsey)
  • Environmental Federation of Oklahoma (Jim Barnett)
  • The Nature Conservancy (Mike Fuhr)
  • Devon Energy (Angie Burckhalter)
  • Public Service Company of Oklahoma (Bud Ground)
  • Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy (Charlette Hearne)
  • Sierra Club (David Ocamb )

What are Instream Flows?

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.


Existing Mechanisms That Potentially Contribute to Instream Flows in Oklahoma

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
In its regular determination of water availability in Oklahoma, the OWRB sets aside six acre-feet of water per year per 160 acres of land to protect domestic uses, which do not require a permit. This calculation assumes one household in each quarter section (four per square mile) of each watershed in the state. It should be noted that even this conservative policy, which removes water from that otherwise available for appropriation, cannot guarantee that this amount of water will in fact be available during the extremely dry periods and conditions that all too often naturally impede water use in Oklahoma.

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.

Reservoir Releases

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.


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