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Is Oklahoma going to run out of water?

Water resources grow more precious in Oklahoma, prompting legal fights and pressure to conserve.
by William Crum Published: April 15, 2013

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.”

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by William Crum
OU and Norman High School graduate, formerly worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Norman Transcript. Married, two children, lives in Norman.
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