“In many ways, the history of Oklahoma is a story of water. Our geography is drawn by rivers and streams. And our cultural legacy is informed by drought.” – Andrew Knittle, NewsOK
Fun fact: Oklahoma was the state with the cheapest gas ($1.89) of the thirteen we drove through on our trip.
Most state borders are difficult to discern in the landscape; a reminder that the physical world sets its own boundaries with mountains, rivers, deserts, or – drought. Not long after crossing the border into Oklahoma, the colors began to grow increasingly subdued; gentle tans and faded yellows with fiery red shadows stretched into endless blue skies. These colors forced patience; gentle inhales and exhales, letting the observer fall peacefully into the soothing rhythm of rolling plains.
Just as one becomes comfortable amidst the dry grass, the landscape rewards the patient onlooker with a sudden piercing blue lake surrounded by a ring of bright green grass and the occasional cow. These lakes and reservoirs break up the landscape that lines US 44 through the state. Each time we passed one, I was repeatedly surprised by the sudden contrast of hue and energy. Oklahoma’s color palette is a striking illustration of the role water plays in ecosystems.
The New Face of Drought
Although short reoccurring drought seasons have long been a typical experience in Oklahoma’s ecosystems, these cycles have changed dramatically in recent years. The state experienced an extended drought from 2010-2015 when either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought conditions covered nearly the entire state. The state suffered an estimated $2 billion in economic losses by 2012, according to researchers at Oklahoma State University.
Oklahoma barely had a chance to recover from the five-year drought before the fall rainy season failed to appear in 2016. Drought took hold again this winter.
By the time we passed through the state in February 2017, the state was experiencing record high temperatures in a month typically known for harsh winter conditions. 95% of the state was actively experiencing drought conditions and the entire state was under a national fire advisory for the first time in history. Only a week before, 19,800 gallons of water had been dropped from Blackhawk helicopters on a wildfire that had engulfed the city of Edmond. Last December, seven fires conflagrated in a single afternoon just North of Oklahoma City (OKC).
On paper, Oklahoma has a water surplus. But the state’s water resources are distributed disproportionately, with the majority lying at the foot of the mountain ranges in the southeast. The most populated cities, OKC and Tulsa, are located in the northeast and central regions of the state.
The normally water-rich southeast has been hit the hardest by the fall and winter drought conditions. Atoka Lake, one southeastern reservoir, was 14 feet below normal in January; another in McCurtain County, was 10 feet down. The trees in this part of the state are accustomed to wet conditions and are susceptible to drought; even more so considering they have yet had the opportunity to fully recover from the 2010-2015 drought. Widespread decline in the forests of the southeast would impact the region’s soil, encouraging erosion and decreasing the ability of the land to hold water.
For the first time in recorded history, cities in southeastern Oklahoma are on “Stage 1” water restrictions that limit the days which residents may water lawns or outdoor plants.
The reservoirs in the southeast have bigger problems than outdoor watering, however.
Oklahoma City pipes water from several reservoirs in the region to supplement the water needs of its growing metropolitan population. Oklahoma City and Tulsa each reach outside their own city limits to acquire water for the roughly 500,000 homes and businesses they each supply. Oklahoma City has fewer surface water resources – and 200,000 more people, – creating a greater dependence on other regions.
Oklahoma City has pumped water from Atoka Lake for years. Consistent mismanagement of the lake’s water has impacted surrounding communities and serves as a symbol for others threatened by attempts to sell their own water. The communities who live adjacent to the reservoirs depend on the water not only for drinking and agriculture but also for tourism.
Canon Lake is another reservoir on which Oklahoma City draws. In 2013, the city of Canton, population 625, lost an entire tourism season due to Oklahoma City’s pumping operations. Canton depends on its tourist economy, which doubles the town’s population during peak periods. That same year, OKC requested 30,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Hefner, where boats were grounded in record low water levels. Oklahoma decided to use water from Canton Lake (10 billion gallons, to be exact) to stabilize Lake Hefner. Canton Lake sat 13 feet below normal levels for nearly all of 2013.
Kathy Carlson, Army Corps of Engineers project engineer at Canton Lake, said it could take two years for the lake to fully recover. Meanwhile, the following spring Hefner Lake received so much water that OKC had to release a portion to prevent flooding.
Residents and business owners of other communities have fought for their water bodies to gain scenic river status, effectively protecting them for recreational use.
Communities living in the southeast still remember giving up their land during the first reservoir bomb, believing they were promoting the greater good of their community, managing flooding and promoting tourism. For many of these communities, the rights to the water they stored have been consistently contested – including attempts to sell the water out of state.
The communities around Sardis Lake have suffered due simply to the uncertainty about who will use the water in their lake. The investment for tourism development the residents expected when the reservoir was built has been limited due to consistent legal and financial battles that have taken place since construction.
The state first tried to sell Sardis water to two different North Texas utilities in 1990 and 2000, after the federal government made clear that they would not be footing the bill. Each time these sales were put on hold by the state legislature.
Oklahoma City presented a plan to pipe water from Sardis to Atoka, then use the existing Atoka pipeline to pump the water into the city limits. OKC began negotiating the water rights with then-state Treasurer Scott Meacham. Oklahoma’s purchase of the water would be used to pay off the state’s bill for the reservoir.
The state finalized the deal despite disputes by the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations that they held the rights to these resources. OKC submitted water use permits to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) for 90% of the lake. OWRB approved the transfer of storage rights to OKC in June 2010 and the tribes responded by filing a lawsuit against the city, the governor, and the OWRB in federal court.
The tribal nations asserted that they controlled the water resources that fell on their sovereign territory and that they must be part of any negotiations to sell the water. The case is complicated because only the US Congress has jurisdiction over tribal affairs.
OKC vs. Tribes
“Water is all about power and control and money.” – Moore, Chairman of the Oklahoma House of Representatives States’ Rights Committee
While the state has been allocating water rights since statehood – over 100 years – the tribes claim that that the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which established the Choctaw Nation, asserts their authority of the resources on their territory. The tribes are arguing that this includes water resources.
The state argued that the tribes’ decision to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and through subsequent statehood, disbanded the tribal nations – and their rights to water – even though this was never codified with legislation.
Tribal experts in Oklahoma believe the tribes are speaking up now because dwindling numbers have increased their ability to distribute resources and strengthened their political leverage.
The lawsuit stretched out over five years, intensifying animosities between groups within Oklahoma, and – some claim – causing political vengeance tactics, including delaying the appointment of Southeastern members onto the OWRB. The appointment of a member from the Southeast is required by Senate Bill 965, passed in 2013. Prior to this bill, the state’s water regulator was not required to, and often did not, include a representative from the state’s most water-rich region.
Settling the Case Against OKC
The lawsuit was settled in early August 2016, ultimately clearing a path for Oklahoma City to pump water from Sardis Lake while placing limits on how much water can be removed without disrupting tourism. The agreement also created a framework for out-of-state water sales or transfers from the Southeastern and South-central regions of Oklahoma.
The framework includes a five-person commission appointed by state and tribal governments to evaluate such proposals and make recommendations to the state legislature. The tribes of the Southeast also received a seat on this board and, therein, control over decisions made about their water resources.
Tribal leaders of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations told State Impact that they “got exactly what they wanted: A seat at the table when governments are considering important issues that affect water in southeastern Oklahoma.”
The tribal nations will also get to appoint one of the two members of a technical committee that will develop scientific models for water rights allocation and project planning. The agreement specified that any money earned through the out-of-state water sales must be used to for future water infrastructure updates, with projects in the tribal nations receiving priority.
Finally, the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations will drop all claims of ownership and control in southeast Oklahoma. [That is a big deal – they had a solid legal case.] The pipeline from Sardis Lake is scheduled to begin construction in 2018 and currently has a price tag around $1 billion.
US Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) incorporated these agreement provisions into the 2016 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) – a major, bi-partisan bill to fund water projects all over the country – to make sure congressional approval happened as soon as possible.
WRDA was signed by President Obama in December 2016. The bill also included a plan to rehabilitate Tulsa’s levee system and to prevent the de-authorization of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which links Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico.
Not the last of Oklahoma’s water worries…
Robert Kerr made a bold prediction in 1973 while serving as Oklahoma’s senior U.S. Senator. Even as the oil boom took hold across the state, he predicted that water, not oil, would become the state’s most valuable commodity. The federal government had just begun to build the more than 100 water reservoirs across the state which residents continue to depend upon.
Gary McManus, the state climatologist, has told local NPR reporters that recent climate patterns in Oklahoma are similar to those proceeding “the Dust Bowl.”
McManus believes that data indicates the La Niña phenomenon influenced the absence of the fall 2016 rainy season. He has said that ocean temperature patterns are currently experiencing oscillations that resemble those in 2010 – at the start of the last five-year drought.
Planning for drought
State water authorities say there is potential to build 68 new reservoirs. New reservoir construction in Oklahoma dramatically decreased after the 1986 WRDA bill, which mandated cost sharing between states, cities, and local authorities. Oklahoma’s last existing reservoir was built in 1997.
Reservoirs are expensive to build. A single reservoir can cost between $120 million and $190 million to build, according to Ed Rossman with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Tulsa office.
There are other obstacles to reservoir construction, including displacement of entire communities and destruction of endangered species habitats. Property rights and environmental externalities are taken more seriously now than they were during the 1970s. New construction would likely spark more drawn-out legal battles.
Oklahoma’s third comprehensive water plan was signed into law in 2012. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s Comprehensive Water Plan (CWP) and the Water for 2060 Act provide an outline of the state’s water plans for the next several decades. The full CWP is available here and includes much-needed updates to water infrastructure. The CWP also calls for the establishment of regional water authorities to oversee water management and includes several different plans for alternative climate change scenarios. The Water for 2060 Act centers around a goal to consume no more freshwater in 2060 than the state consumed in 2012. The state’s population is projected to grow by 50% of 2012 numbers by 2075.
The OWRB estimated in 2010 that the state needed roughly $38 billion to meet drinking water infrastructure needs and $43 billion for wastewater infrastructure over the next 50 years.
Current financing programs are not on track to meet the state’s needs for infrastructure funding and one of the key mechanisms Oklahoma was counting on to meet these needs, the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund (Federal SRF), is on the chopping block under their very own Scott Pruitt.
Implementation legislation for both bills are still moving through the state legislature and many have been delayed by current legal cases over water resource rights. There is also political opposition to these plans.
But new water infrastructure is a must. Many of Oklahoma’s towns and cities are using pipes, pumps, and treatment equipment installed in the 1930s – and many have begun to fail. For example, in November 2012, water service ceased for 1,300 of the residents of the small town of Konawa for four days. The city still faces millions of dollars in repairs. In addition, the distribution of the state’s population has changed, requiring brand new drinking and wastewater projects.
Oklahoma’s resource predictions also depend on no dramatic changes to groundwater aquifers, on which the state’s lakes depend. The state is cautious to depend too heavily on fragile groundwater systems as a major source of supply. The Arbuckle Simson aquifer, in south-central Oklahoma, is not replenished by other streams and could take hundreds of years to recharge.
Mining in Aquifers
Despite the stresses placed on Oklahoma’s water supply and the uncertainty surrounding its future management, several large industries in the state depend on large amounts of water to operate. One such industry is rock mining. Particularly, limestone. Oklahoma has limestone so good, it is used in toothpaste. Companies from across the country and around the world take advantage of the state’s high-quality rocks and loose regulatory network.
A majority of the companies operating in Oklahoma are based in Texas, where the Dallas-Fort Worth area needs the rock for its growing urban areas. Texas companies also produce around one-fifth of the US’s supply of concrete mix.
Today, Oklahoma is increasingly concerned that there are only 10-15 years of quarry production left in the existing mines. They have begun installing and planning new mines, including about a dozen near the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer. As previously noted, the Arbuckle-Simpson a sensitive water resource – likely the state’s most vulnerable.
Mining requires moving large amounts of water. The area surrounding the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer is dotted with abandoned quarries which have filled with crystal clear groundwater that is – ironically – in the way. These holes need to remain dry during the mining process.
Oklahoma has relatively few regulations regarding mining in aquifers and no severance taxes. There is no limit on how deep into the aquifer the companies can mine. As far as how much water mining operations will need to relocate or how much they have relocated in the past, operators don’t have to account for that either.
The state has introduced new legislation that will prevent operators from dumping the water into old mining pits or out on the ground. The OWRB has been tasked with creating specific rules to ensure this water is not wasted. These rules, however, have not yet been worked out.
Natural gas is also a major pressure on Oklahoma’s water supply. Production uses a substantial amount of water – ranging from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water per well. The water used ends up highly contaminated and must be restored. Usually, it is injected into the ground. This is called wastewater injection. Late in 2016, federal and state regulators expanded and modified emergency orders limiting oil and gas activity at the 67 disposal wells near the fault line that produced the 5.8 magnitude earthquake.
The rationale of using such large amounts of water to produce a less valuable resource is questionable, particularly when wind energy is cheaper for Oklahoma to produce.
Along with the inequitable distribution of water resources, our drive across Route 44 provided consistent examples of significant economic inequality in Oklahoma. Driving through Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the contrasts in wealth within individual neighborhoods reminded me more of riding through La Paz than any other US city I had visited. In Oklahoma City, walled off compounds rose beside blocks of crumbling single-story homes. Gated properties were surrounded by visual barriers; if not walls, then high fences or dense vegetation. As we hit the raised portion of the highway, I caught glimpses of several gorgeous homes, surrounded by lush gardens and bright green lawns – likely watered with resources from Atoka or Canon reservoirs.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to capture this in a photograph driving beneath the somewhat ominous walls and I missed the opportunity on the raised highway. However, I have found these awesome graphics from Data USA, that depict wealth distribution inside Tulsa and OKC. The depth of the inequality seems to suggest that Oklahoma’s natural gas boom has not served the state equally. One can imagine the impacts of such inequality in monitoring an even more precious resource – water – under the same philosophies.