Legislators analyze prolonged drought still affecting much of Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY – Despite heavy spring rains, Oklahoma is still in the grips of a protracted drought, state legislators were told this month.

Lake Texoma, for example, was swollen with floodwaters earlier this year but today is 2 feet below normal, said J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

A discussion of Oklahoma’s current and projected future water supplies was conducted by the state House of Representatives on November 16 in an interim legislative study that focused on drought conditions and potential ways to redistribute water from eastern to western Oklahoma.

Both studies were requested by Republican Reps. Doug Cox of Grove and Leslie Osborn from Mustang, and were approved by House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, who presided over the hearing Monday. The meeting was held in the House Chamber at the State Capitol.

The Drought Lingers

Drought started in Oklahoma in 2010 and “is still ongoing,” said Tom Buchanan, a Jackson County farmer who is president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and a member of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

The drought has “decimated” Oklahoma’s beef cattle industry, Buchanan said, adding, “It will take many years to recover.” Many Oklahoma crops are “marginal” because of drought conditions, and water shortages are “compounding” a population decline in western Oklahoma, he said.

Even though most of Oklahoma experienced heavy spring rains, drought “will continue to be an ongoing problem” in this state “because of our climate,” Rep. Osborn predicted.

State Rep. Brian Renegar, who attended the interim study, said later that he plans to introduce a measure in the 2016 legislative session that will be directly related to drought conditions in Oklahoma.

Rep. Renegar, D-McAlester, proposes a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the out-of-state sales of Oklahoma water if any county in the state is experiencing a water deficiency.

Water Redistribution

In his review of a proposed water redistribution system, Rep. Cox defined “excess” water as that which is released through spillways without being used to generate electricity or for domestic, commercial or industrial consumption. A lot of water in northeastern Oklahoma, for example, could reasonably be considered “excess,” he suggested.

Buchanan said 10 million acre-feet of water flow into Oklahoma each year, on average, while an average of 36 million acre-feet flow out of the state each year. That means a net annual average of 26 million acre-feet could conceivably be considered “surplus” water, Buchanan indicated. One acre-foot is equivalent to 325,851 gallons of water per year, or almost 893 gallons per day.

A water transfer system could be financed with revenue bonds rather than general obligation bonds, Cox contended.

However, the reality is that chances of a water transfer system being approved in the current political and economic environment range from slim to zilch.

The odds that any water of any significant volume could be routed from eastern to western Oklahoma anytime soon is virtually nil, for several reasons. 

Those reasons include the multibillion-dollar cost of a water redistribution system, particularly in light of chronic state budget deficits; Native American claims to water in southeastern Oklahoma; this state’s obligations under the terms of the multistate Red River Compact; a pending U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study of the Red River Basin; and the potential for litigation from users of Red River water extending from Lake Texoma to the Gulf of Mexico.

Transfer System Would be Expensive

During its multiyear update of the state’s comprehensive water plan, which was delivered to the Legislature in 2012, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board calculated the cost of a water-transfer system from “water-rich” eastern Oklahoma to “water-poor” western Oklahoma.

Four alternatives were evaluated, based on a northern route using Kaw Lake as a water source or a southern route in which Lake Texoma would be a water source, coupled with chloride-control and flood-control features.

Depending upon the route and other associated factors, the estimated costs of a water transfer system could range from a low of $2.7 billion to as much as $20 billion. http://www.owrb.ok.gov/supply/ocwp/pdf_ocwp/WaterPlanUpdate/draftreports/OCWP_WaterConveyance_Study.pdf Maintenance expenses of a statewide water redistribution system would be about $600 million annually, Strong told the legislators Monday.

Meanwhile, the Legislature wrestled with a state budget shortfall of $188 million in 2014 and a deficit of $611 million this year, and anticipates a shortage of perhaps $1 billion next year.

The Chickasaw and Choctaw nations (http://www.www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/water-supply-adequate-to-support-sales-tribal-analysis-concluded) have been in litigation against the State of Oklahoma to limit exports of surface water from 22 counties in southeastern Oklahoma to Oklahoma City.

(According to Debbie Ragan, public information officer for Oklahoma City’s Utilities Division, Oklahoma City has contracts to sell water, ranging from emergency to full-time service, to Edmond, Deer Creek Rural Water Corp., El Reno, Canadian County Water Authority, Moore, Mustang, Norman, Newcastle, Piedmont, The Village, Warr Acres, Yukon, Shawnee, Pottawatomie County Rural Water District #3, Blanchard, Atoka, Coalgate, Atoka County Rural Water District #4, Atoka County Water & Sanitation District, a USDA agricultural research station, and Rural Water, Sewer and Solid Waste Management District #4

Oklahoma City also is a backup water supplier to Tinker Air Force Base and to OG&E, and has raw-water sales agreements with Lattimore Materials rock-crushing quarry near Lake Atoka and with Cedar Valley Nurseries at Ada.)

Many Native American tribes in Oklahoma are developing their own water management plans “based on present and likely future water needs, with goals of preserving water levels in lakes and ecological flows in streams,” wrote Dr. William J. Andrews, a hydrologist who is director of the USGS Water Science Center in Oklahoma City.

Stephen Greetham, the Chickasaw Nation’s special counsel on water and natural resources, told the legislators that the Chickasaws and Choctaws have “a legal and moral obligation to look out for” members of their tribes and the communities in which they live. Developing and maintaining “a strong economy and healthy homelands” requires “smart water management” by the tribes, he said.

USGS Launches Basin Study

The USGS launched a three-year study of the Red River basin last month; the $1.35 million budget will be financed entirely with federal funds, Andrews said.

The Red River basin encompasses an area of approximately 93,200 square miles; it is the second-largest river basin in the southern Great Plains. 

The river’s headwaters are two branches (forks) in the Texas Panhandle, and it flows east through Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana for 1,360 miles until its empties into the Mississippi River.

USGS water science centers in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana intend to study water use and availability for the Red River basin “that would improve estimates of water use and investigate trends in water resources with potential climate change and increased water withdrawals,” Andrews wrote. 

The project “will facilitate better management of water resources for use by humans and to maintain water quality and ecological flows in this basin.”

Concerns about and conflicts over water in the Red River Basin have been growing, Andrews wrote, because of increases in water use for power generation and other purposes, and a chronic drought in Texas aggravating the mounting need for drinking water in the rapidly growing Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

The Tarrant Regional Water District, which serves the Fort Worth area, tried to obtain water from Red River tributaries in Oklahoma, but Oklahoma denied the claim and the U.S. Supreme Court sided unanimously with Oklahoma, 9-0, in 2013. The nation’s high court cited provisions of the Red River Compact, a congressionally sanctioned agreement adopted in 1978 that allocates water rights within the Red River basin among the states of Oklahoma, Texas, 
Arkansas and Louisiana.

The new USGS study evolved from a resolution adopted by the Oklahoma Legislature a year and a half ago.

In Senate Concurrent Resolution 32 by former Sen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, and former Rep. Curtis McDaniel, D-Smithville, the Oklahoma Legislature appealed to Congress to instruct the USGS to conduct “a master multi-state study” of the Red River basin, analyzing the quantity and quality of water along the entire length of the river and its entire watershed.

The USGS will “update old studies” pertaining to surface water, groundwater, and rainfall runoff, Andrews said. “It’s part of our national water census.” The new study will “contribute additional knowledge to what we know about the watershed from Texas to the Red River’s confluence with the Mississippi River.”

Upstream Diversions Would Affect Salinity Levels

Any significant upstream diversions or withdrawals of water that would affect salinity levels of the Red River would be challenged by commercial interests at Lake Texoma.

The Red and several of its myriad tributaries – which include the 295-mile-long Washita River, which forms in the Texas Panhandle and passes through Roger Mills, Custer, Washita, Caddo, Grady, Murray, Carter and Johnston counties before it empties into Lake Texoma – carry heavy loads of sediment and salts. The estimated natural chloride load in the Red River Basin is 4,400 tons per day.

(Chlorides constitute only about one-third of the total dissolved solids in the river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports.)

Lake Texoma stakeholders “are concerned about removal of natural chloride in the river and tributaries” above the reservoir because reducing the salt concentrations could have an adverse effect on the multimillion-dollar annual striped-bass fishing industry of the lake, Andrews pointed out.

A Corps of Engineers study six years ago estimated that Lake Texoma attracts seven million visitors each year, including 62,000 Oklahoma anglers and 39,000 Texas fishermen and women. The lake also is credited with supporting more than 2,500 fishing-related jobs in the two states.

The Corps contends that lowering the chlorides in the Red River would have a “minimal impact” on the adult population of striped bass in the lake, but added that there is no consensus on the survival rate of young striped bass if the chloride content decreased substantially.

Red River Water Diluted Downstream from Denison Dam

Landowners and other citizens downstream from Lake Texoma, particularly in Arkansas and Louisiana, would be adversely affected if significant volumes of freshwater were diverted from the Red River, thereby increasing its salinity, noted Richard Brontoli, executive director of the Red River Valley Association.

Freshwater tributaries of the Red River include the Kiamichi River and Boggy Creek in southeastern Oklahoma, downstream from Denison Dam, which impounds the Red to create Lake Texoma.

Most of the rain that falls in the drainage basin from below Lake Texoma to Shreveport is considered “uncontrolled” since much of that rainfall enters the Red River through streams, creeks or bayous that do not pass through a lake, Brontoli said. “This large, uncontrolled area contributes a lot of fresh water” to the Red River.

Consequently, the river is a direct source of drinking water for Bossier City, La. In addition, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is participating in a Red Bayou Watershed Project north of Shreveport, La., in which approximately 14,000 acres of crops are irrigated with water siphoned from the Red River.

USGS Study Welcomed

Bill Anoatubby, governor of The Chickasaw Nation, advised Andrews that the Chickasaws and Choctaws both are “very interested” in the USGS study “since much of our tribal territory lies within the Red River Basin…:”

“A thorough assessment of the hydrology of this basin is the foundation of understanding the river basin as a limited resource,” wrote Dr. Edwin J. Rossman of the Corps of Engineers.

“After complying with the requirements of the Red River Compact for required flows to Louisiana, this study would assist in identifying available water for other Arkansas uses,” said Dan York, chairman of the Arkansas Red River Commission.

And Brontoli said the study “would be extremely beneficial to identify how to better use our water resources for agriculture, municipal, industrial and eco-system sustainability.”

NOTE: This analysis of the recent hearings was provided by state House staffer Mike Ray, a veteran journalist who now works for the Democratic Caucus.