As climate scientists predict hotter, dryer summers and more intense drought in the coming decades, state and local leaders in Oklahoma are trying to get residents to think differently about how they use water.
As demand for water grows, state and local officials are looking at ways to make better use of the water the state has. In many cases, communities are reusing water that flows down residents’ sinks, showers and, yes, toilets as a way to keep up with demand.
J.D. Strong, director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said city leaders across the state have been looking for creative ways to conserve water for several years. But four years of drought has made residents more aware of the need for conservation, as well, he said.
The board is one of the lead agencies in the Water for 2060 campaign, an effort to ensure the state has an ample drinking water supply for decades to come.
“That means preparing for the worst of times,” Strong said.
The campaign was outlined in the Water for 2060 Act, a bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin in 2012. The primary goal behind the act is to ensure that Oklahoma uses no more fresh water in 2060 than it used in 2012, Strong said. To do that, state and local leaders will need to rethink where and how they use fresh, drinkable water, Strong said.
Some cities have been reusing partially treated wastewater on a small scale for years, Strong said. Oklahoma City, for example, sends partially treated wastewater to Gaillardia Country Club to water the golf course. But now, cities are beginning to look at more expansive use of wastewater.
Oklahoma City officials plan to upgrade the city’s water system to allow the reuse of water from the Deer Creek wastewater treatment plant. City officials have said treated wastewater would be of a consistently higher quality than the variable river water that flows into Lake Hefner.
Norman city officials are also including wastewater reuse as a part of the city’s 60-year water plan, and Lawton city leaders have considered a similar move.
The Obama Administration’s National Climate Assessment warns of greater extremes in precipitation across the Great Plains, including heavier rain and snow events and more intense droughts. The assessment, which represents work done by more than 300 scientists nationwide, was released in May.
According to the assessment, the effects of climate change are already being felt nationwide. The report warns that residents of the Great Plains, including Oklahoma, should expect hotter, drier conditions over the next few decades as those effects intensify.
But the report wasn’t without its detractors.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the most vocal skeptic in Congress of man-made climate change, dismissed the study as “alarmism.” Inhofe, R-Tulsa, called on President Barack Obama to enforce transparency and accountability within the Environmental Protection Agency and criticized the agency for not considering the economic impact of its regulations.
“We can all agree that natural variations in the climate are taking place, but man-made global warming still remains a theory,” Inhofe said. “The president’s climate change policies will only cause a greater disparity in our nation’s income gap and prevent our nation from achieving its full economic potential.”
But Oklahoma has already been experiencing crippling drought for several years. Although the situation has improved drastically this spring, about much of the state remains in the midst of deep drought, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor report released Thursday. About 16 percent of the state, mostly in southern and western Oklahoma and the Panhandle, were listed in extreme or exceptional drought, the report’s two most severe categories.
Robert Puls, director of the Oklahoma Water Survey at the University of Oklahoma, said other factors besides climate change will compound the problem in the coming decades. Before the drought of 2011, the state had seen several years of wet conditions. Those conditions aren’t typical for Oklahoma, Puls said, so it’s important that state officials plan for lengthy dry periods.
Population growth will also put greater strain on the state’s water resources, he said. As the population grows, more people will demand water for drinking and other uses, he said. Having greater numbers of people in the state will also affect land use across the state, which can impact the water supply, as well, he said. The growth of the energy industry will also lead to more water use in the state, he said.
Puls said he expects wastewater reuse to become a more attractive option for communities as water grows scarce. Although the idea of drinking water that was only recently used to wash dishes or flush toilets could be off-putting to some, Puls said he thinks residents would come around to the idea with time.
“The fact of the matter is, we’re already using wastewater for our drinking water,” Puls said. “Everybody’s pretty much downstream of somebody.”
We can all agree that natural variations in the climate are taking place, but man-made global warming still remains a theory. The president’s climate change policies will only cause a greater disparity in our nation’s income gap and prevent our nation from achieving its full economic potential.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe,
The Republican from Tulsa dismissed the study as “alarmism.”