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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

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.”

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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