Changing the makeup of Oklahoma's water planning board would be an “atrocity” that would stifle economic development, Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust Chairman Pete White says.
Senate Bill 965 would reconstitute the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, shifting from membership based largely on population to membership based on water planning regions.
“It puts control of resources that belong to all of us into the hands of a few of us,” said White.
Water has been a key factor in producing the benefits that flow to the entire state from the “economic engine” generated by people who live and work in the cities, White said.
“If you curtail that water supply, then you're going to curtail economic development,” he said.
The governor appoints members of the Water Resources Board.
SB 965 would, over a six-year period, replace five members appointed from the five congressional districts and four members appointed at-large with nine members — one from each of the nine planning regions in Oklahoma's 1995 Comprehensive Water Plan.
Oklahoma, Cleveland, Canadian, McClain and Pottawatomie counties in central Oklahoma — with an estimated 2012 population of 1.2 million — would get one board member.
Beaver, Cimarron and Texas counties in the Panhandle — with an estimated 29,474 residents — would get one board member.
Nine counties in southeastern Oklahoma with an estimated population of 184,583 also would get one board member.
Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, one of the measure's authors, did not return a call to his office Friday afternoon for comment.
The House and Senate have approved versions of the bill. It is assigned to a conference committee.
Oklahoma City depends on reservoirs in northwest and southeast Oklahoma for most of its water.
Of the current board's nine appointed members, two are from Tulsa and one from Oklahoma City. Others are from Altus, Bartlesville, Tahlequah, Chickasha, Arnett and Shawnee.
Current law requires that at least one board member be “well-versed” in use of water for recreation, industry, irrigation, urban needs, rural residential needs, agriculture and soil conservation. The proposed bill would add oil and gas production to the list.
Jim Couch, Oklahoma City's city manager, asked Water Resources Board Executive Director J.D. Strong about the measure Friday at a seminar on water law.
“Can we make it work? Yes we can,” Strong said, noting that residents of metropolitan areas are “not as fond” of shifting from a population base to a geographic base for board appointments.
White said Friday that he expected the courts would kill the idea, if the Legislature or governor don't kill it first.
He said he was reminded of when rural areas, despite having fewer residents, could elect enough members to control the Legislature. The Supreme Court changed that, he said.
“It's fundamentally unfair to geographically divide the state into sections and therefore weight your decisions so strongly in favor of land instead of people,” he said.