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Oklahoma Watch: State's water crisis complicated by disputes

Oklahoma Watch: Everywhere you look, people are worked up about water. Many of these disputes wind up on the desktop of J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
BY WARREN VIETH For The Oklahoman Published: March 3, 2013
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We have enjoyed a number of decades of having plenty of water in our state. We've become a bit gluttonous about it as a society. There's no better time than right now, in the midst of this drought, for people to think about the value of that water and how they could use it more efficiently.

Q: From a purely legal standpoint, is what Oklahoma City is doing right now fair and square?

A: Absolutely. They have water rights from the state and they have contractual storage rights from the (Army) Corps of Engineers, which owns that reservoir.

Q: Over time, has the state done enough to balance the needs of water consumers with those of recreational users?

A: We need to do something about that issue. Our statutes and our regulatory system are really set up to appropriate water for people, industries and cities to use for consumptive purposes. There's really nothing specifically in our laws and regulations to make sure we're taking care of the nonconsumptive uses for water: the tourism, the recreation, the fishing, the endangered species, those sorts of things.

Q: What's the status of the lawsuit between the state and the tribes?

A: We have stayed the litigation and are engaged in productive mediation right now. Hopefully we'll be able to resolve our issues through that process and avoid litigation altogether.

Q: Has the state been sensitive enough to the concerns of tribes about water?

A: I've certainly heard the complaint that the state is not. I also hear that complaint about the state (not) being sensitive to anybody's particular problems and needs. It really is a two-way street. In order for us to resolve these issues with all of the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, it's going to take serious commitment and engagement on both the side of the state as well as the tribes.

Q: How important is the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the efforts by Tarrant County, Texas, to lay claim to Oklahoma water?

A: It may be significant; it may not. Our initial thoughts are that it could be extremely significant to interstate water compacts all across the West.

Q: Is the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer a crisis? Is the Panhandle running out of water?

A: No. I don't think we've reached the crisis stage by any means. Certainly there's some groundwater depletion occurring. We see groundwater depletion all over the state, though, not just in the Ogallala Aquifer.

A recent regional water study shows that they are producing more crops with 60 percent less water in the Panhandle than when irrigation really started in earnest in the mid-'50s. That's encouraging. That tells us that the farmers up there in the Panhandle are reducing their consumption. If those trends continue, it's possible that we could see some sort of equilibrium.

Q: So you don't see another Dust Bowl in the cards?

A: Not at this point in time. I think it's largely because we learned so much from that experience. The modern-day conservation movement really arose from Oklahoma's experience in that Dust Bowl. We have a much bigger conservation community out there working with farmers and ranchers to make sure that we don't experience that again.

Q: Is there anything your agency can do to mandate more conservation?

A: Not at present. There's no statutory authority for us to do that. Nor do I think that that's necessarily the way we need to go. I think we can make great strides just through educating people and providing the right incentives and in some cases by removing regulatory obstacles.