Are we going to run out of water?
Texans are trying to grab Oklahoma water, tribal rights to southeastern Oklahoma water are in dispute, and forecasts warn the drought could persist for years.
Oklahoma City, the state's largest and fastest-growing metropolitan area, sits on the boundary between east, where rainfall usually is plentiful, and west, where things are dry and getting drier.
The city depends on sources east and west for its water.
So, will rains replenish the water a growing state needs?
“The real answer is we don't know,” said Gary McManus, the associate state climatologist.
After about 30 years of above-average rainfall, Oklahoma is three years into a drought that could rival the dry years of the 1950s, McManus said.
Still, Oklahoma's 34 major reservoirs store about 13 million acre-feet of water. Twenty-two major aquifers store about 390 million acre-feet. It would take Oklahoma City 3,200 years, at the current levels of consumption, to distribute that much water to its customers.
Oklahomans used an estimated 1.8 million acre-feet of water for all purposes in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available.
“You stack those up and you say there's no danger of us running out of water,” said J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
But drill down a bit, and Strong's twin factors of scale and location — which provide a picture at the local level — come into play.
The Water Resources Board is financing construction of a 12-mile pipeline from Stillwater to Lone Chimney Lake. The Lone Chimney Water District serves 16,000 customers and is perilously close to running out of water.
Canton Lake, about 100 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, is about 18 percent full after Oklahoma City withdrew water this winter to replenish Lake Hefner.
Planning is key
The Water Resources Board has identified 12 “hot spots” — watersheds in western Oklahoma where the threat of running dry is most severe.
“The water is not always where we need it when we need it,” Strong said.
Some water users and producers have done a good job of planning, he said.
“But those are the exceptions to the rule,” Strong said. “Many more are just struggling to get by with what they've got.”
Oklahoma City water managers claim credit for being among those who have planned ahead.
The city holds rights to Canton Lake water in the west and to water from streams in southeastern Oklahoma. A pipeline that opened 50 years ago last month brings in water from the southeast.
A mediator is overseeing efforts to settle a lawsuit filed by the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes that could affect Oklahoma City's efforts to acquire more water in the southeast.
The city also is part of a lawsuit to be heard April 23 by the U.S. Supreme Court over claims to southeastern Oklahoma water by a north Texas water district.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said it is hard for him to imagine a scenario where Oklahoma City and the central Oklahoma cities that share its water — with the potential to serve 1.3 million people — would not have the water they need.
“We're better situated than almost any city in our part of the country,” he said.
Shift in thinking
Through 30 years of above-average rainfall starting around 1980, agricultural and urban water users changed their habits to match the weather, McManus said.
Now, Oklahoma City water managers are talking about the need for a “paradigm shift” in thinking about how water is used.
The focus is on lawns and landscaping but could shift to water-hogging appliances and toilets, and to higher prices, before long.
If conditions return to those of the 1950s, when rainfall was below average and the worst years were drier than the 1930s, “it could be quite a shock to the system,” McManus said.
While invoking “a good measure of humility,” he said periods of cool surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean off South America appear likely to persist the rest of the decade. That's a pattern that tends to produce warm, dry weather in Oklahoma, he said.
In the short term, there's hope for Oklahoma to have sufficient rain going into summer, McManus said. Last week's drought report showed some relief.
“Every Oklahoman knows you don't want to go into the summer needing rainfall,” he said.
Legal fights and pressure to conserve all are keyed to the same things, McManus said.
“The recipe for drought relief ends up being pretty simple — stuff falling from the sky.”