Former Oklahoma congressman says water task force holds key to potential economic gains

BY WES WATKINS Published: May 20, 2012
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During my two decades in Congress, I served 10 years on the two subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee that fund all water projects for Oklahoma and the rest of the nation. My purpose for serving on those subcommittees was to maximize the benefits from water development for the economic growth of Oklahoma.

With great interest and concern for our future, I've been watching from the sidelines the conflict between the Indian tribes and the state. I commend Gov. Mary Fallin, Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle and Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby for forming the water task force committee with 19 outstanding Oklahomans to try to resolve this conflict.

My work in Congress included securing funding for a number of water projects. Two of the earliest were Sardis Lake and McGee Creek. Also, I had a comprehensive study made in the 1980s to look at the existing and potential Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the USDA Water Conservation projects for flood control, irrigation, hydropower, navigation and municipal and industrial use.

Some of these projects were feasible at 1987 oil prices of $17 a barrel. It was suggested others would be feasible if oil prices approached $35 a barrel. As we know, oil has tripled that amount and now hovers around $100 per barrel. It seems a significant number of the other water projects would be feasible today.

Citizens in the Kiamichi Water Basin area where the water supply is located have the highest unemployment, highest welfare rate and lowest income in Oklahoma. For many years, the area has been locked into poverty. I've always believed that water development — properly done to include economic benefits to the area — might be the best and possibly the only way to lift the area out of its historically dire economy.