Everywhere you look, people are worked up about water.
The U.S. Supreme Court will rule soon on a water dispute between Oklahoma and Texas. The state is in mediation with American Indian tribes over southeast Oklahoma water. The entire state is suffering from a three-year drought despite recent rainfall and snowstorms. Lake levels have fallen and communities are imposing water rationing. People near Canton Lake are mad at Oklahoma City for draining the reservoir so Lake Hefner won’t dry up.
Many of these disputes wind up on the desktop of J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Last year, Strong’s agency drafted a new 50-year water plan. Among other things, it calls for an $82 billion program to upgrade the state’s drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure over the next five decades.
In an interview with Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth, Strong discusses the severity of the state’s current water crisis, the pending legal battles over water and the Canton Lake controversy. Although the state will always be vulnerable to drought-induced shortages, he explains what can be done to make their impact less dire.
A fifth-generation Oklahoman, Strong, 41, grew up in Weatherford and received his bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology from Oklahoma State University. He joined the Water Resources Board in 1993 as an environmental specialist and worked his way up to the director’s office.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Is the state of Oklahoma running out of water?
A: On average, no. But at the present time we are having water stresses in certain areas of the state. We’re in the third year of an extended drought. Hopefully we’re at the end of it, but maybe we’re in the middle. Who knows?
When we look at average rainfall (and) average water availability, the state as a whole has more than enough water to take care of its needs. The problem is it’s never an average year in Oklahoma, and the water is hardly ever where we need it when we need it.
Q: Is what we’re experiencing right now a crisis?
A: It is a crisis. Drought is a crisis that people don’t ever fully appreciate until it’s over. Because it doesn’t hit us like a tornado, a lot of folks don’t wake up to the fact that they’re in the midst of a crisis. But those of us who sit here and look at the deterioration of soil moisture and reservoir water availability and that sort of thing fully appreciate the fact that we’re in a crisis.
Q: Are Oklahomans in denial about climate change?
A: I don’t believe there is a consensus on that subject right now, at least not on man-induced climate change. People have different definitions of what climate change means. There’s a pretty good consensus that there are natural cycles to our climate that we’ve experienced since the beginning of time, and we’re in a time of dryness and drought right now.
When you go to the leap of this is man-induced climate change, you see a lot of folks falling off that wagon pretty fast.
Q: Then is this simply a cyclical drought that at some point will end, and the rains will come?
A: Droughts always end at some point, and the rains will come. It’s going to take a lot more rain than what we’re seeing right now to end it. But we do expect this one to end just like all others.
The real question is when will it end, and when we look back, how will it compare to the worst drought on record, which is the mid-’50s drought, and the second-worst drought, the drought of the ’30s?
Q: Do the people who use Canton Lake for recreational purposes have a legitimate grievance about the lake being drained so people in Oklahoma City can continue watering their lawns?
A: It’s a legitimate concern. But it’s not just a concern with regard to Oklahoma City. The state as a whole and all of its citizens, including those up at Canton, can do a better job of conserving water and using it more efficiently.
We have enjoyed a number of decades of having plenty of water in our state. We’ve become a bit gluttonous about it as a society. There’s no better time than right now, in the midst of this drought, for people to think about the value of that water and how they could use it more efficiently.
Q: From a purely legal standpoint, is what Oklahoma City is doing right now fair and square?
A: Absolutely. They have water rights from the state and they have contractual storage rights from the (Army) Corps of Engineers, which owns that reservoir.
Q: Over time, has the state done enough to balance the needs of water consumers with those of recreational users?
A: We need to do something about that issue. Our statutes and our regulatory system are really set up to appropriate water for people, industries and cities to use for consumptive purposes. There’s really nothing specifically in our laws and regulations to make sure we’re taking care of the nonconsumptive uses for water: the tourism, the recreation, the fishing, the endangered species, those sorts of things.
Q: What’s the status of the lawsuit between the state and the tribes?
A: We have stayed the litigation and are engaged in productive mediation right now. Hopefully we’ll be able to resolve our issues through that process and avoid litigation altogether.
Q: Has the state been sensitive enough to the concerns of tribes about water?
A: I’ve certainly heard the complaint that the state is not. I also hear that complaint about the state (not) being sensitive to anybody’s particular problems and needs. It really is a two-way street. In order for us to resolve these issues with all of the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, it’s going to take serious commitment and engagement on both the side of the state as well as the tribes.
Q: How important is the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the efforts by Tarrant County, Texas, to lay claim to Oklahoma water?
A: It may be significant; it may not. Our initial thoughts are that it could be extremely significant to interstate water compacts all across the West.
Q: Is the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer a crisis? Is the Panhandle running out of water?
A: No. I don’t think we’ve reached the crisis stage by any means. Certainly there’s some groundwater depletion occurring. We see groundwater depletion all over the state, though, not just in the Ogallala Aquifer.
A recent regional water study shows that they are producing more crops with 60 percent less water in the Panhandle than when irrigation really started in earnest in the mid-’50s. That’s encouraging. That tells us that the farmers up there in the Panhandle are reducing their consumption. If those trends continue, it’s possible that we could see some sort of equilibrium.
Q: So you don’t see another Dust Bowl in the cards?
A: Not at this point in time. I think it’s largely because we learned so much from that experience. The modern-day conservation movement really arose from Oklahoma’s experience in that Dust Bowl. We have a much bigger conservation community out there working with farmers and ranchers to make sure that we don’t experience that again.
Q: Is there anything your agency can do to mandate more conservation?
A: Not at present. There’s no statutory authority for us to do that. Nor do I think that that’s necessarily the way we need to go. I think we can make great strides just through educating people and providing the right incentives and in some cases by removing regulatory obstacles.