For some, water sales (in or out of state) reach boiling point

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 20-Apr-2010

The politics of water headed toward boiling point today (Tuesday, April 20), at least from the perspective of two rural legislators. In a statement, Governor Brad Henry’s spokesman tried to turn down the heat in a statement.

Yesterday, more than 24 hours before the two legislators brought their assertions on the issue front and center in the Capitol press room, Oklahoma Treasurer Scott Meacham, in an interview with CapitolBeatOK, offered what might be considered a knowledgeable layman’s preview of the difficulties of the water issue.

He reflected, “It makes eminent sense for the state to look at the extent of excess water, then to turn that into dollars for the state of Oklahoma and its citizens.” Cautioning that bad years for water are quite bad, especially in the western part of the state, he said the job for policy makers in the coming years would likely be to help “define good times and bad.” Then, those guiding water policy have to “take the next step, and explore options with buyers at a fair price.”

Offering a long-term view, Meacham reflected, “It would be foolish for us to sell ourselves short” in terms of water as a resource and a commodity.

In recent weeks, CapitolBeatOK has asked Meacham and other state officials occasional questions about water policy, and about possible water sales to Texas (specifically Tarrant County). Meacham said he had no knowledge on firm offers from the Texas side of the border, but indicated a “possible solution” was being discussed for a legally required payment installment from Oklahoma to the federal government.

Today (Tuesday, April 20), two Democratic members of the state Senate – Jerry Ellis of Valliant and Jim Wilson of Tahlequah – held a press conference to protest what they characterized as plans on the part of Oklahoma City to purchase water from Sardis Lake in southeast Oklahoma. They tied the issue to the legal settlement and a pending payment from Oklahoma to the federal government.

The two said any sale would be premature because a mandated statewide water study is still two years away from completion. Sen. Ellis said any City-Sardis negotiations are objectionable in part because “this agreement seems to be in the hands of the state’s Water Resources Board which does not have a single member from our area.”

Sardis Lake is the subject of a federal lawsuit over unpaid costs for lake construction. An installment payment of $5 million is due by June 30.

At last week’s state revenue briefing, Treasurer Meacham said he was not aware of any firm offer from Tarrant County, Texas, for possible purchase of Oklahoma water. Meacham said due to litigation, that $5 million installment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is due July 1 and that state officials did not yet know how they would pay for it.

The role, right and prerogatives of the state’s Indian tribes in water policy are an evolving aspect of the issue. That issue also seemed to intensify as a result of the Wilson-Ellis press conference today.

Wilson said in his prepared statement: “Of course Oklahoma City has expressed their willingness to make the payment and take control of the water. But, we have another offer from the Choctaw Nation. Given the track record of water deals between Oklahoma City and southeastern Oklahoma, we’re much more inclined to believe the Choctaws have our best interest at heart.”

Wilson and Ellis laid out a cluster of steps they contend should occur before any water sales take place. Ellis said in his prepared statement, “We need to make sure that any plans made take into account the fact that economic development in southeastern Oklahoma means we will need to plan for greater water use than we currently need. If Oklahoma City is allowed to take it all away now, then the people of southeastern Oklahoma will be robbed of the opportunity to create a better life for future generations.”

On March 31, during Senate Appropriations committee consideration of House Bill 3061 (creating a Water Infrastructure Revolving Account), Democrats pressed sponsoring Senator Ron Justice, a Chickasha Republican, on several fronts. They asked for his personal assurance the measure would not be broadened to allow sale of water to other states. Justice said “as far as I know” such a development was not in the works.

Sen. Susan Paddack of Ada wondered if “anything else is going on” as legislative deadlines for bill processing loomed at the time. Sen. Kenneth Corn of Poteau posed his question about the bill this way: “Is that [broader water sales] someone else’s intent?” Some Democrats said they suspected the measure would be part of a “Sardis Lake payoff.”

(At his March state revenue briefing for reporters, CapitolBeatOK asked state Treasurer Scott Meacham had said, concerning the Sardis settlement, “That is a state debt, a state obligation, and we’re just getting into the issue of how that will be paid.”)

At that hearing, Senator Wilson was perhaps the most pointed in his criticisms of H.B. 3061. In closing comments moments before the committee voted, the Tahlequah Democrat characterized Justice’s measure as “the camel’s nose under the tent” for broader sale of Oklahoma water.

In one of the closest votes on that rather routine day of deliberation, H.B. 3061 passed 11-7 and advanced for further consideration.

After today’s Wilson-Ellis press conference, all questions to state officials about the politics of water were directed to the office of the governor.

Paul Sund, communications director for the governor, issued this statement Tuesday afternoon: “In 1974, the state of Oklahoma contracted with the federal government to construct Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma in anticipation of the future water needs of the state and its communities. In more recent years, a number of Oklahoma communities facing water shortages have worked with state officials and others to locate resources to address their short- and long-term water needs.  

“A proposal under discussion would help the state pay off its federal debt on Sardis Lake, address the needs of many Oklahoma communities with water shortages and preserve a significant share of the lake’s reserves for communities in southeastern Oklahoma.  Tribal nations are also involved in the discussions.

“This proposal is about helping Oklahoma communities with Oklahoma water resources, nothing more, nothing less.  It does not involve or enable the transfer or sale of water to Texas or any other state.”