WATER policy and the apportionment of seats on the Oklahoma Water Resources Board typically fly below the radar. Residents of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, in particular, have reason to pay attention.
Senate Bill 965 would dilute the influence of a majority of Oklahomans while granting outsized power over water issues to a minority. This could have serious, long-term consequences for the state economy, especially in Oklahoma's two major metro areas.
Under current law, five seats on the OWRB are appointed based on congressional districts (which have roughly equal populations), while the remainder are at-large appointees. SB 965, as filed, would change that system so that OWRB appointments are instead based on planning regions established in the 1995 Comprehensive Water Plan.
The impact of this mapping change would be substantial. The central region, including most of the Oklahoma City metro area, would have one board member representing more than 1.2 million citizens. The northeast district, including more than 1.2 million citizens mostly in the Tulsa metro, also would be represented by one board member. In comparison, the Panhandle district, with a population of 29,474, would get a separate board appointee, as would the northwest district, which has a population of 65,077.
In other words, SB 965 would give fewer than 2.5 percent of Oklahoma citizens the same clout on the OWRB as nearly 66 percent of the state population. The concept of “one man, one vote” would clearly go out the window when it comes to implementing state water policies.
SB 965 is authored by Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, and Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid. It's hard to believe this proposal isn't driven by Marlatt's objections to Oklahoma City's recent withdrawal of water from Canton Lake. Marlatt blamed the withdrawal on Oklahoma City's “failure to adopt a proactive water conservation plan.”
In reality, Oklahoma City leaders did a good job of water planning decades ago. That's why the city owned the water rights to Canton Lake. Marlatt apparently felt those legal obligations should be scuttled in favor of peripheral tourism benefits the lake created locally. Can it really be coincidence he now seeks to give his Senate district the same number of OWRB seats as Tulsa and Oklahoma City combined?
The OWRB oversees water use appropriation and permitting, water quality monitoring, supply planning and resource mapping. The group's decisions can have major statewide impact affecting all of Oklahoma's economy. All parts of Oklahoma — urban and rural — should have a voice in these discussions.
But instead of encouraging evenhanded, proportional balance, SB 965 would ensure that representation of some rural residents dramatically outweighs those of metro residents who comprise a far larger share of the state population and associated economic activity.
SB 965 is a throwback to the worst examples of rural-urban division in Oklahoma history, such as apportioning state House seats by county instead of population. By the 1950s, a University of Oklahoma study found that a single citizen in Cimarron County was equivalent in representation to 10.1 people in Oklahoma County. By the 1960s, 29 percent of Oklahoma citizens elected a majority of House members.
That system eventually was declared unconstitutional. SB 965 should never get the chance for a similar legal challenge. The bill is in conference committee, and there it should remain.