Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan: The end of the beginning
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Published: 25-May-2011

As the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill might have put it, discussion of Oklahoma’s Comprehensive Water Plan (OCWP) is nearing the end of the beginning. 

On the eve of the last two regional meetings and hearings on the plan, four Democrats in the state Legislature are pressing for an attorney general’s opinion on whether or not the process has complied with state law.

Today (May 25) in Lawton and tomorrow in Oklahoma City, the last two sessions in a series of public hearings on the 2012 OCWP update are being held. But the last two public sessions on the plan are almost certainly merely the start of renewed focus on the politics of water. 

The Lawton session began in the afternoon at the Comanche County Fairgrounds (Prairie Building), and will conclude with tonight’s meeting. 

Tomorrow’s hearing on Oklahoma’s Central Region is at OSU-OKC (Student Center Conference Room, North/South) in west Oklahoma City.

According to information from the OWRB, the process for the last two sessions mirrors prior public hearings: “At each meeting location, a technical session will be held from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. to share information on local water supply systems, infrastructure and related issues. A separate evening session, from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m., will focus on proposed state water policy, specifically draft recommendations derived from the public, water user groups, and experts.”

This morning, Democratic state Representatives Brian Renegar of Blanco and Ed Cannaday of Porum joined state Sens. Jerry Ellis of Valliant and Richard Lerblance of Hartshorne in releasing to the news media information about their May 19 letter (received at Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office on Monday, May 23) requesting a formal legal opinion. 

According to their press release, sent to CapitolBeatOK, the first point made in the formal request “is that the Comprehensive Water Plan’s Enabling Act has not been honored. The enabling act specifically states what is to be covered by the statute.”

The law leading to the comprehensive study, the legislators contend, says the study’s goal “shall be to maximize and not minimize the alternatives available to all citizens, municipalities and other water user entities in acquiring water for beneficial use.”

Rep. Cannaday contends his was told at the Stigler water plan meeting that non-consumptive (recreational) water use was not included in the study. He asserts, “That statement alone violates the enabling act.” 

Renegar supported his colleague’s assertion by saying, “The incomplete study of aquifers also violates the enabling act, as those people in areas of the state whose sole source of water has not been addressed, as relates to the language of ‘all citizens, municipalities, and other water user entities.’ ”

In the letter itself, the second focus of the opinion request is clear. Concerning a firm involved in the hearings process, the four legislators assert, “CDM Engineering did not report or disclose to the Comprehensive Water Plan’s public participants or to the general public that, simultaneously, while under water plan contract(s) to OWRB …, CDM worked for the Oklahoma City Water Trust Authority on an $800,000+ engineering contact to bring Sardis Lake water to the Oklahoma City area.”

Sen. Ellis claimed in his statement, “CDM engineering had contracts with the Comprehensive Water Plan and simultaneously worked for the Oklahoma City Water Trust authority in a contract to bring Sardis Lake water to Oklahoma City.”

For himself, Senator Lerblance said, “The validity of either of these two issues in the opinion request casts a dim shadow on the Comprehensive Water Study, which is a shame, considering the large amount of money spent on this Plan.”

Reluctant to comment on the criticisms was Jeri Fleming, who has facilitated the regional meetings and discussions. However, she told CapitolBeatOK today (May 25) that many attendees at the hearings have pressed for inclusion of “in-stream flows” adequate to support recreational purposes, and that the plan will reflect that input. 

Fleming said citizens at the hearings have in this matter been divided “roughly 50-50” between environmentalists and allies, on the one hand, and large industrial or business users of water resources, on the other.

Diane Clay, spokesman for Attorney General Pruitt, told CapitolBeatOK,

“The Attorney General's Office received the opinion request from Rep. Renegar and his colleagues, and is reviewing the request.”

Water policy issues seem virtually certain to be a source of controversy later this year and in the months before the 2012 legislative session. Indeed, water policy has been a sub-text in urban/rural and east/west legislative exchanges for the last several years. The issue also seems likely to play a central role in upcoming evolution of sovereignty law, and in relations between the state government and the various tribal (Indian) governments in Oklahoma. 

In 2001, an engineering study conducted for the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes concluded that Oklahoma’s water supply was sufficient to engage proposed water transfer contracts, including inter-state water sales, which were then under discussion. 

However, the tribal governments have shifted away from the view reflected in that study and have messages they are determined to fight the state over Sardis Lake and, particularly, any move toward interstate water sales. 

Yesterday, hearings for the Lower Washita region were held in Sulphur, attracting what Fleming characterized as “a few brave souls” despite a surge of storms in the region and throughout the state. 

This week’s meetings are the last of 13 held over the past month. The sessions have been hosted by OWRB, the agency given responsibility for coordinating the update of the comprehensive plan. The Oklahoma Water Resources Research Institute (OWRRI), including Jeri Fleming, has held the contract to coordinate public participation.

The water plan draft was released in early April for the present stage of public review and comment. Drafts of planning region reports, detailing current water wage and “future usage scenarios and options” are on the OWRB’s website at www.owrb.ok.gov/ocwp. The documents have been available for review before regional meetings, including today’s and tomorrow’s sessions.

In a release sent to CapitolBeatOK last week, J.D. Strong, OWRB Executive Director, said of the technical reports: "Collectively, the Watershed Planning Region Reports are an invaluable planning tool that will eventually benefit virtually every Oklahoman in establishing reliable and beneficial water supplies. Each report has been carefully designed to allow the water system manager, farmer, irrigator, industrial operator, business owner, and casual citizen to make intelligent and informed decisions concerning the use and sustainability of our most precious natural resource.”

OWRB encouraged attendees, including those for Lawton and Oklahoma City, to review the documents before the sessions convened. They included “fifty-year projections of water use in the state’s planning regions, options to meet forecasted deficits in supply or related problems, and dozens of water policy recommendations developed by both Oklahoma citizens and stakeholders that will be submitted to the State Legislature upon the plan’s conclusion in February 2012. These regional feedback and implementation meetings are scheduled throughout the state in April and May as part of the final stage of the OCWP’s unprecedented public participation process.”

Beyond the in-person sessions, “The public may also submit comments through the OWRRI’s website at http://okwaterplan.info, email at waterplan@okstate.edu, or by calling 405-744-9994.”

Before this week’s closing trio of meetings, regional sessions were held at Quartz Mountain, and in Beaver, Clinton, Enid, Tulsa, Grove, Stigler, McAlester, Antlers, and Coalgate. 

Concerning projected water use in the Oklahoma City area (the Central Watershed Planning Region), the largest “is for municipal and industrial purposes; the region comprises about 18% (335,640 acre-feet per year (AFY)) of the state’s total current water demand. According to OCWP water use projections, by 2060, the region is projected to have a total demand of 442,890 AFY, an increase of approximately 107,250 AFY (32%) from 2010. The majority of the demand and growth in demand over this period will be in the Municipal and Industrial sector.”

Editor’s note: More information on the draft water plan is available at www.owrb.ok.gov, or call OWRB.

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