Category Archives: Americas

Part 2: Texas Panhandle

It struck me the other day that it had been three months since this road trip – and I still had not finished this blog series. I decided to spend the time I would usually spend on my “This Week” posts generating a few more of these.  Look out “Part 3: New Mexico,” coming soon. “This Week” will return in June as “This Month”. Thanks for reading. – M


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Population: 27.47 million (2015)

Largest economic industries: (1) Agriculture, [Texas has the most farms of all United States both in terms of number and acreage. Texas leads the nation in the number of cattle, usually exceeding 16 million head. Texas also leads the nation in cotton and pecan production] (2) Aeronautics [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the center of NASA, is in Houston.] (3) Defense, [Home to two of the US Army’s largest facilities, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss.] (4) Computer Technology, (5) Energy [Global leader in energy; Oil, gas, and wind.], (5) Tourism [The state tourism slogan is “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.”].

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“Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.”John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

We spent the night in Shamrock, Texas, a small town off of “Old Route 66” (and very proud of it).

In the morning, the receptionist lets me mail several postcards free of charge and offers to make stronger coffee for the lobby carafe.  Texas and I were off on the right foot – never mind the fact it was freezing cold outside. (Okay, it wasn’t freezing. But it certainly was not a temperature I had anticipated when getting dressed that morning.)

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As we reconvened our journey in the daylight, I was awed by the incredible texture that had been added to the environment.  Incremental chasms and cracked pieces of land broke up the endless yellow fields, revealing the deep mahogany hues underneath.

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The complexity of the shadows dancing across these formations was captivating. I began to grow a bit anxious, as if afraid that one might pass by without my being able to fully experience it.

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But they kept coming. Soon these miniature portraits of dramatic prose became the familiar inhabitants of the space outside my window. After an hour or so, I even managed to steal my breath back from the slim wisps of bright blue water trickling through the broken ground.

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I was deeply grateful to have a driving partner. Otherwise, I may have parked along the first one I had seen and spent the day meditating on texture and color. Baby Suggs style.

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The wisps of water below fields of brittle grass provide an appropriate metaphor for the current state of water in the Texas Panhandle.

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Northwest Texas sits above the Southern-most portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High-Plains Aquifer. The Ogallala is the source of water for millions of people in the United States. It also provides 30% of all the water the country uses agriculture. The Ogallala extends as far North as South Dakota, providing water for eight states and can hold as much water volume as Lake Huron. More than 90% of its water is used to irrigate crops.

“It is hard to overestimate the impact that this bounty of buried water has had on American life. If you snack on popcorn or peanuts, you are probably eating Ogallala water; if you dress in cotton clothing, you are probably wearing it. … The fourteen million acres of crops spread across its flat surface account for at least one-fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest. … If the aquifer went dry, more than 20 billion worth of food and fiber would disappear immediately from the world’s markets.” – William Ashworth, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains.

Nowhere is the Ogallala Aquifer more depleted than in the Texas Panhandle (although parts of Southwest Kansas come close). Water levels have dropped more than 150 feetroughly 70% – since the 1950s. “About half the aquifer’s thickness has dried up” in some parts of Texas, according to Leonard Konikow, a hydrologist with USGS.

The five-year drought that hit the Southern US escalated the depletion rates. Municipalities in the Panhandle turned to groundwater after surface water sources began to dry up and farmers needed to pump more water to compensate for declining rainfall.

The Texas Panhandle once took most of its drinking water exclusively from Lake Meredith. As these sources dwindled in the early 2000s, residents turned underground.

Water levels in the Panhandle dropped 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013, one of the “five or ten worst drops in the district’s more than 60-year history,” according to hydrogeologist Bill Mullican.

Municipalities in the Panhandle began turning back to Lake Meredith in 2014 after unusually heavy rains filled the once-empty lake with 2.8 billion gallons a water. That may sound like a lot – but it was 4 % of Lake Meredith’s usual haul. Water experts and residents alike were torn. The region had taken six times that amount from the Ogallala in 2013. Where do you turn when there are no good options?

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Other residents opposed the return to surface water because low water levels likely meant high levels of sediment. Unfortunately, a 2002 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that groundwater in the Panhandle contains high fluoride, arsenic (linked to pesticides used in cotton production), and nitrate levels and has been contaminated by abandoned oil fields. 

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Lake Meredith has continued to recover, but at 24.9% of its former life, it still has a long way to go. Nonetheless, the website of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife states “that 97% of the area’s water needs are dependent upon groundwater.

 

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Source: Waterdatafortexas.org

 

Much of the depletion in the Southern Ogallala can be tied to agricultural production. Texas produces much of the country’s wheat, corn (for grain – meat production), sorghum (for grain-meat production), hay, pecans, rice, and soybeans. The state’s number one crop, cotton, is a particularly water intensive crop. Texas also leads in beef production, another major water user, particularly when temperatures increase.

 

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[“U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists.” – That was 1997!]

Farmers here produce food for the entire country and they use a lot of water to do it. In Ogallala Blue, William Ashworth asserts that groundwater mining “is not an accident here; it is a way of life … it is also a way of death.”

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Texas is a “right to capture” state. This means that landowners have the right to pump groundwater from wells on their property, “without malice or consideration for the water supply for neighboring wells.”

This approach to water supply fails to take into account that no single well is really an individual source of water, but rather one straw in a larger common source. (In this case, it’s a common source for 97% of the water needs for the region, millions of users to the North, and the food supply for much of the nation.)

The water law system in Texas is further complicated by the division of regulating authority between nearly 100 conservation districts, each with the power to create their own set of rules.

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The traditional conception of property rights and local governance that goes along with this type of system is, perhaps, what one might expect to find in Texas. When one buys a piece of land, one buys all of the resources on that land – and, in this case, under it. It is, after all, how the law interprets other resources, such as timber or oil.

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Texas tax code further interprets water as a “depleted asset.”

This means, generally speaking, that as a property owner uses the water under their property, the value of their property is declining. Thus, the IRS provides a tax break pegged to the amount of water they have used that year, in order to compensate for the loss of value in their property.

The large amounts of water that one must use to qualify for the tax break likely could only have been used for economic activities. (Ie. agriculture.) The water was a tool used to produce a good which, in turn, produces a profit.

The US government (taxpayers) is (are) effectively subsidizing the water used by Texas business persons (farmers) to produce goods (food). In my opinion, this does not seem to fit into a conservative model of limited government.

It is, however, exactly how the US tax code treats oil and gas resources.

A tax break that pays higher dividends in proportion to the amount of water used is probably not encouraging conservation.

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ProPublica has an excellent article explaining the tax break in more detail.  I found this excerpt particularly interesting:

Hasn’t the federal government spent billions subsidizing conservation and the protection of the West’s groundwater, in part by building dams and encouraging people to use the water in rivers instead? Why would they forfeit federal tax dollars to do the opposite?

We called the IRS, and they initially shared our doubts. Not because they cared much about groundwater (it’s a tax agency!) but because they said they were pretty sure no such deduction was legal. They pointed us to section 613 of the tax code, and it couldn’t be more explicit: For the purposes of deducting the depreciating value of minerals, the definition “does not include soil, sod, dirt, turf, water, or mosses.” Ok, who would ever have thought of deducting mosses or sod? But anyway. That left us really confused.

Right, there were, after all, those farmers in Texas who seemed to have benefited from what the IRS said was not possible.

We encouraged the IRS to check again. They did. And then they found the provision they thought didn’t exist — right there in the text for Revenue Rule 65–296. An IRS spokesperson laid out for us the specifics: “Taxpayers are entitled to a cost depletion deduction for the exhaustion of their capital investment in the ground water extracted and disposed of by them in their business of irrigation farming specifically from the Ogallala Formation.”

Seems like some follow-up questions were in order.

For sure. We asked for clarification. The IRS said it would try to explain. Most importantly, they wanted to say it wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. The deduction is only available for one small part of the country — an area that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And it should only apply if people are using water from a source that is running dry anyway.

But wait, what? You get a break when you use resources that are already in danger of vanishing?

Yes, that’s why it is what’s called a depleted asset.

Conservation is precisely what one would expect the farmers to want to do, presuming they would like to preserve their way of life in the Texas Panhandle, for themselves and for their children.

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At the same time, their motivations for continuing to over-pump are understandable. It’s the same reason that further evidence of the impacts of climate change motivates apathy, rather than action.

There’s a two-year-old in the back of our minds that’s still there that we’ve learned to overrule that wants to have their one marshmallow now rather than wait for two marshmallows. Very few people on this planet want to destroy planet earth. It’s just that our other agendas get in the way of things that might have a longer time horizon. – Tima Bansal, executive director of the Network for Business Sustainability in London

 

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…and maybe a little bit of all that “manifest destiny.”

Transitioning to “Postdepletion” 

Industrial-scale extraction from the Ogallala didn’t start until after World War II.  For the Texas Panhandle, recent estimates predict depletion will occur around 2050, about a hundred years later. The Ogallala took 10,000 years to fill. Geologists estimate that it will take 6,000 years to refill naturally.

Despite these realities, residents and farmers in the Panhandle resisted efforts to impose pumping limits during the drought. They organized to create a moratorium on enforcing the new water use rules that were passed. These grassroots efforts went so far as to influence the replacement of the general manager and four out of the five board members for the water district.

Other farmers in the Texas Panhandle – and across Kansas – have begun experimenting with dryland farming methods which use only rainfall to produce crops. Several innovative technological practices are being tested in publically funded common agricultural zones. There has been funding to provide and train farmers to use technologies that allow for monitored drip irrigation.

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“Agtech is the solution to the Ogallala Aquifer Crisis.” – Hydrobio

The funding of such projects is not without controversy. On one side, the tax base is reluctant to spend money on these programs while many families are struggling with the loss of economic production. On the other, many argue that these projects will not be enough to save the Ogallala and sustainable farming will still need more water than they will have.

Many of these critics are turning away from the idea of “managed depletion” and putting their hopes in an inexhaustible resource – Wind.

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It might surprise you to learn that Texas has the largest installed wind capacity (20,320 MW) of any state in the country.

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Farmers across the panhandle turned to wind after Texas became the second US state to pass a renewable portfolio standard in 1999. (A renewable portfolio standard is a policy which requires a certain amount of energy to come from renewables.)

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Texas also invested in high-voltage power lines to connect the windy regions with its growing cities. Today, Texas has more than double the wind generation capacity of any state and has two projects set to begin construction in the Panhandle.

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For farmers, the wind industry offers an opportunity to use their land for a less uncertain purpose.

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Texas also has the largest wind industry workforce of any US state.

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Wind speeds across the Texas Panhandle average between 7.5 and 9.5 miles per second.

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In December of 2015, Texas set a new record for powering 40% of its electricity with wind power for 17 hours straight.

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There are arguments that the federal government ought not to be picking sides in the energy market; that the US taxpayer should not be subsidizing fuel. Yet, this argument overlooks the billions of dollars in tax breaks that the federal government grants the oil and gas industries because their raw product is classed as a depleted asset. The wind cannot offer producers such subsidies.

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Does the fact that it can never be depleted make it a less competitive energy source? Not in Texas.

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As we neared the New Mexico border, the landscape changed once more. The yellow grass became almost white, interspersed with light greens and small shrubs. The land grew increasingly cohesive and the reddish hues of the Texas dirt softened into a dusty scarlet.

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Water had left her mark and the relative difference was striking. I was hooked.

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“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Part 1: Oklahoma

This piece is the first of a series of posts that chronicle our cross-country road trip from Pennsylvania to Washington, in February 2017. I have started in Oklahoma as it was where we were when the idea to conduct such research occurred to me.  I may return to the earlier states at a later time.

I decided to use our trip to build my understanding of domestic environmental policies, management strategies, and challenges. Primarily, my research is centered around my favorite topic – water.



“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

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Population: 3.878 million (2014)

Strongest economic industries: (1) Energy [Oil, gas, & wind]; (2) Info & Finance [Data centers for ADP, Google, and IBM]; (3) Transportation & Distribution [Access points to Mississipi & Arkansas River systems]; (4) Agriculture & Bioscience [$6.7 billion bioscience contribution]; (5) Aerospace & Defense [Home of Tinker Air Force Base]

Fun fact: Oklahoma was the state with the cheapest gas ($1.89) of the thirteen we drove through on our trip.

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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.

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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 never failed to feel surprised and excited by the sudden contrast of hue and energy. Oklahoma’s color palette is a striking illustration of the role of water in ecosystems.

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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.  

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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).

[Temperatures for February peaked at 99F, against the historical monthly average high of 55F.]

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.

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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.

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Atoka Lake, January 2017. Source: State Impact

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.

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Lake Hefner, January 2013 – Lowest levels in 66 years.  Source: State Impact

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 OKC had to release water to prevent flooding.

Residents and business owners of other communities have fought for their water bodies to gain scenic river status, which would protect them for recreational use.

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Lake in south-central Oklahoma, February 2013. Source

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.

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Waurika Lake, January 2015. Source: State Impact

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 water rights to these resources. OKC  submitted water use permits to the 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.

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19th-century map of present day Oklahoma. Source: Wikiwand

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 of 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 in around $1 billion.

US Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) included the agreement provisions in 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 deauthorization 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 Oklahoma, that residents continue to depend upon.

Gary McManus, the state climatologist, has told local NPR reporters that Oklahoma experienced climate patterns similar to those in recent years, during a period known today as “the Dust Bowl.”

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Dust Bowl: a section of the Great Plains of the United States that extended over southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico during the 1930s. Photo: Abandoned farmstead in Oklahoma in 1937. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

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.

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Lake along Route 44

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 now 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 needs 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 resources predictions also depend on no dramatic changes to groundwater aquifers, on which the state’s lakes depend. The state is cautious to depend to 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

Another industry in Oklahoma that impacts large amounts of water is probably less well-known – 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. The have begun installing and planning new mines, including about a dozen near the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer. Arbuckle-Simpson is probably the state’s most sensitive water resource.

Mining also requires moving large amounts of water. The area surrounding the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer is dotted with abandoned quarries that 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 groun. 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.

Agriculture

Oklahoma’s major water concern is that demand is largest when supply is lowest, and drought only exacerbates this imbalance. The state’s farmland is almost entirely dependent on rainfall, so agriculture production has been directly impacted by the drought.

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Cow-hauler at truck stop along Highway 44

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued disaster declarations which make available low-interest loans to farmers in the entire state of Oklahoma in 2013.  The OWRB expects that crop irrigation will generate the largest increases in water demand over the next 50 years.

Natural Gas

As pressing as Oklahoma’s water troubles are, the most recognizable environmental story in the state’s relationship with natural gas. Oklahoma has gained national attention for the impact of natural gas drilling on earthquake activity inside the state. Prior to 2008, Oklahoma had 2-5 earthquakes that were magnitude 3 or greater each year. By 2014, Oklahoma had more big earthquakes than California. And in 2015, the state experienced roughly 900 such earthquakes.

Natural gas production also 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.

Scientists from U.S. Geological Survey have found evidence that the increase is due to wastewater injection, which is used in both conventional drilling and fracking. Five Thirty-Eight has put together a great piece on this research and addresses why natural gas production has had such a major impact on Oklahoma, while other, more intensely drilled states, such as North Dakota, have not experienced similar consequences. [In short, “Oklahoma is positively lousy with fault lines.”]

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Natural gas refinery along Route 44

 

The Pawnee nation filed a lawsuit against several oil and gas companies in the final week of February, not long after we had made it home to Washington state. The Pawnee are accusing the companies of operating waste water injection sites which triggered a record high 5.8 magnitude earthquake in September 2016 and caused extensive damage to century-old tribal infrastructure. The case will be brought in front of the tribe’s district court. This is the first “quake-related” lawsuit filed in a tribal court.

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.

It is worth questioning the rational of using such large amounts of water resources to produce a less valuable resource, particularly when wind energy is cheaper for Oklahoma to produce.

Inequality
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.

 

data usa
Income distribution in Oklahoma’s two largest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Source: Data USA

 

Unfortunately, it was impossible to capture this in a photograph driving beneath the somewhat ominous walls and I missed the opportunity on the 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, at least, suggest, that Oklahoma’s natural gas boom has hardly served the state as a whole.  One can imagine the impacts of such inequality in monitoring an even more precious resource – water – under the same philosophies.