Could we run out of water?

This post is by OK Policy intern Amanda Marcott Thottunkal. Amanda is pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Oklahoma.

OWRB ExecutiveReportOklahoma City drinking water supplies are at record lows, and NewsOK recently reported that water rights could be the biggest issue for the city in 2013. Could Oklahoma run out of water? Possibly, in certain locations, according to the 2012 Water Plan Update by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB).

The Water Plan Update warns that several factors will strain Oklahoma’s water resources by the year 2060 if current use and supply trends are maintained. Some of these factors include: population growth; overall demand increases of 33 percent; climate change; potential depletion of underground aquifers, and pollution concerns.

The 2012 Water Plan Update was the result of four years of research and consultation. The process led to specific policy recommendations, including a state/tribal water rights resolution and the formation of 13 regional groups to identify water issues for their area.

HB 3055, the Water for 2060 Act, is the first legislative response to the 2012 Water Plan Update. It was signed into law in May 2012. The act:

  1. Sets a new, ambitious, and unprecedented water policy for the state. The new policy sets a goal of “consuming no more fresh water in the year 2060 than is consumed statewide in the year 2012.” J.D. Strong, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said Oklahoma is the first state in the nation to make that commitment.  It is a direct response to the Water Plan’s data that overall demand increases will strain the state’s water availability. In order to accomplish this goal, the new legislation asks state policy makers to focus on drinkable water conservation and reuse of other types of water, such as waste water.
  2.  Creates a new Water Conservation Grant Program.  In 2009, HB 3135 authorized the state’s first Water Conservation Grant Program to encourage pilot conservation and reuse programs. Grants totaling $35,000 were awarded through the OWRB’s Water Plan appropriations.  However, funds for the program dried up with the Great Recession. The Water for 2060 grant program is modeled after the  2009 program. A maximum of $50,000 annually will be appropriated by the OWRB for water conservation and reuse projects around the state. The goals of the new grant program are to increase public awareness regarding our state’s water resources; to provide financial assistance for community projects focused on conservation, and to assist in the development of new policies to encourage water conservation.
  3.  Forms the Water for 2060 Advisory Council.  It will consist of 15 appointed members from different sectors of the community. The stated purpose of the Council is to recommend incentives for water conservation, make recommendations regarding water education and develop new financial assistance programs.  By November 2015, the Council will submit a written report with their policy recommendations to the Governor. While the Water Act was  effective as of November 1, 2012, appointments have not yet been made to the Council. 

Experts in Oklahoma water policy are encouraged by the passage of the Water for 2060 Act, with some reservations about its utility.  Shawna Turner is current president of Sustainable Shawnee, board member of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, and a member of the Water Research Advisory Board at the Oklahoma Water Resources Research Institute. Turner worked with former House Speaker Kris Steele to draft the original 2009 grant legislation. She also participated in the two year water planning meetings that provided input on policy recommendations for the 2012 Water Plan Update.  While she is encouraged by the 2060 Act’s water conservation message, she finds it lacking in concrete policy solutions. She is concerned that the bill states OWRB will “make grants” without identifying a funding source. Finally, Shawna believes the Act overlooks the important topics of water rights and permits to use water. Yet she remains hopeful that the legislation will be a catalyst for “more substantial changes to policy that are meaningful and remain true to science.” 

Sara Hill, Sr. Assistant Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation, also has concerns about the Water Act. She said that any strategy for the future of Oklahoma’s water will be incomplete as long as Oklahoma lawmakers “continue to ignore tribal water interests and the role of tribal governments in the protection and management of water resources.”

While the Water Act does little to address specific policy recommendations made by the OWRB’s Water Plan, the legislation is a good starting point.  It frames a new conversation about water resources for the state. It is likely that more concrete policy solutions will be presented by the Advisory Board in 2015. 

As drought in Oklahoma continues to be rated “extreme” or “exceptional” by the National Weather Service, and our state’s population continues to grow, it is important to not take our water resources for granted.

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