With the right strategies, Oklahomans can overcome unprecedented drought (Guest post: Martin Koch)

Martin Koch is an M.A. student at the University of Kansas’s Department of Geography.  He recently earned a B.A. in Environmental Sustainability from the University of Oklahoma. 

Photo by Al Jazeera English / CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Al Jazeera English / CC BY-SA 2.0

Oklahoma has struggled under severe drought conditions for most of the decade. Conditions have been even drier than during the notorious Dust Bowl of the 1930s. While the current drought is still challenging, especially for Oklahoma’s agricultural communities, we aren’t seeing the same kind of catastrophe as in the Dust Bowl because of soil conservation strategies put in place since then.

History has proven that the resourcefulness and fortitude of Oklahomans is stronger than any adverse climate or weather event. However, we still face a difficult task to improve our conservation of water supplies that are under more stress than ever before.

In 2009, Oklahoma passed the Water for 2060 Act, which sets a goal for the entire state of using no more water in the year 2060 than is used today.  Last spring, with guidance from OU Professor Travis Gliedt, I conducted a survey of municipal utility managers in Oklahoma to determine how the Water for 2060 Act impacts water resource management in individual communities.  I also surveyed managers in California and Arizona to gain comparative perspectives from other Southwest states. 

My survey focused on eleven specific water conservation measures: water price increases, leak detection and repair, meter fault detection and replacement, automated meter reading, grey water reuse, wastewater reuse, stormwater retention, residential consumer education, commercial consumer education, green roofs, and high efficiency plumbing codes.  This set is a diverse cross-section of both “hard path” conservation measures (which require investment in infrastructure construction) and “soft path” conservation measures (which rely on policy and behavior changes). 

Initially, I discovered that water conservation can be challenging.  Since the passage of the Water for 2060 Act, average water consumption among Oklahoma communities who responded to my survey has increased by 0.58 percent.  For comparison, average water consumption among California respondents has dropped by 3.50 percent since the enactment of that state’s Water Conservation Act of 2009.  Oklahoma utility managers claimed that cost was the greatest obstacle to implementing water conservation measures. 

To address this concern, I sought to identify measures that were both cost-effective and highly politically feasible by asking respondents to rank each measure based on these factors.  The measure that scored well both for have a low cost per gallons saved and high political feasibility was residential consumer education.  While 100 percent of California respondents have implemented this measure, only 75 percent of Oklahoma respondents have.  If more Oklahoma communities were to follow the lead of education campaigns like Oklahoma City’s “Squeeze Every Drop” initiative, our state could dramatically improve its conservation performance. 

It’s not only consumers who could benefit from more education on conservation. Of the Oklahoma utility managers surveyed, 43 percent said they were unfamiliar with the Water for 2060 Act.  However, Oklahoma water managers are receptive to learning more about conservation.  A plurality of respondents (29 percent) said spreading new ideas for conservation measures was the most effective component of the Water for 2060 Act.

Conservation education for water managers could take many forms, from structured presentations at professional conferences to informal networking events.  Perhaps statewide water agencies could establish a “Blue Drinks” program to promote events at which water managers could network with each other and with state water policy officials — much like the “Green Drinks” program that has helped promote sustainability knowledge across the country. 

Cost was the overall greatest obstacle to conservation measures for all three states in the survey. This is especially true in rural areas (the median community population among respondents to my survey was 2,058). One strategy for finding the funds could be through a policy known as infrastructure banking.  State infrastructure banks are revolving funds that loan money at low or zero interest to municipalities.  Once the municipality completes a capital project, it repays what was borrowed so that those funds can go to investments in other communities. Since these banks are subsidized by states, they offer lower borrowing costs than the bond market.

Oklahoma has good reason to make these investments; research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston shows that increased public investment in “water and sewer systems” is linked with increased economic output. Infrastructure banks are especially useful for rural communities that can otherwise have the biggest challenges to fund major projects. Nearly 40 percent of funds allocated by the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund aided water systems serving fewer than 10,000 people.

By combining the most cost-effective conservation strategies, innovative funding sources, and a statewide education effort, Oklahomans can overcome the current drought, just as past Oklahomans weathered the Dust Bowl and took action to prevent that disaster from happening again.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

One thought on “With the right strategies, Oklahomans can overcome unprecedented drought (Guest post: Martin Koch)

  1. I’m proud to say that Oklahoma is already engaged in infrastructure banking with its CWSRF and DWSRF loan programs, where we make loans to municipalities and rural water districts at below – market rates for infrastructure rehabilitation and expansion. Both programs have a very successful track record of funding needed improvements across the state for the past several years.

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