The Oklahoma Water Resources Board issued a landmark ruling restricting the amount of water that can be taken from the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer to one-tenth of the amount historically allowed.
The ruling will place a new annual cap of .2 acre-feet per acre of land on the amount of water that ranchers and other water rights holders can withdraw from the aquifer basin each year.
The decision is designed to protect the continued free flow of springs and streams that supply such popular tourism destinations as Turner Falls and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, as well as preserve the sustainability of the water supply to Ada, Ardmore, Durant and several other cities.
The Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer underlies areas in Murray, Pontotoc, Johnston, Garvin, Coal and Carter counties in south central Oklahoma.
Wednesday's ruling has its roots in a controversy that arose a decade ago when several Canadian County towns proposed obtaining water rights from south central Oklahoma ranchers and pump water from the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer to meet the needs of their growing communities, said J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
South-central Oklahoma residents were concerned that such a move could cause streams and springs to dry up, endangering their water supplies, as well as hurting tourism and recreation.
They persuaded the Legislature to pass a 2003 law that placed a moratorium on the issuance of any temporary groundwater permit for public water supply use outside the region overlaying the aquifer. The moratorium was to be in place until the Oklahoma Water Resources Board could complete studies and determine the amount of water that could be taken from the aquifer without reducing the natural flow of water from springs and streams emanating from it.
Last week's ruling was the result of those studies.
The law and subsequent ruling are considered to be landmarks because “for the first time in Oklahoma water law history,” ground water and surface water are being tied together in calculating usage limits, Strong said.
Oklahoma previously had always treated groundwater as a “private property right” and surface water as “public property right,” he said.
Historically, the annual default limit for ground water allocation had been 2 acre-feet per acre of land. Only one-tenth of that amount will be allowed in the future, although there will be a transition period, Strong indicated.
Not only does the ruling severely restrict the amount of water that can be exported from the region, it also will have ramifications for some cities and businesses within the region.
Ada, for example, is going to have to pay landowners to obtain water rights to a lot more acreage than it currently has in order to continue to meet the municipal water needs of its citizens, said Carl Allen, Ada's public works director.
Nevertheless, Allen said the city is a supporter of the decision because having a sustainable city water supply is more important than having to pay more for water rights.
“It just makes sense,” Allen said.
There was opposition from some landowners who complained valuable water rights were being taken away without compensation and from some limestone and sand quarry owners who expressed concerns that the new cap could restrict their businesses.
Other ranchers were pleased.
“We're elated,” said Amy Ford, a Durant rancher and president of Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer. “We did this legislation out of concern about a potential massive transfer out of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer up to the communities surrounding Oklahoma City.”