The Oklahoma Water Resources Board took steps Tuesday to lower the amount of water that can be removed in a single year from the Arbuckle-Simpson aquifer in southern Oklahoma.
The board approved recommendations from its staff that would lower the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the aquifer in a single year from two acre feet per acre to two-tenths of an acre foot per acre — 10 times less than the old regulations allow for at present.
An implementation time frame of five years also has been recommended by the agency's staff due to the fragile state of the aquifer, which is considered a sole-source groundwater basin.
Brian Vance, a water resources board spokesman, said the proposed maximum yields won't take effect until a public hearing is held in May and a final determination is approved by the water board some time after that.
Public comment on the actions taken by the water board Tuesday is scheduled for May 22 in Sulphur. A precise time and location have yet to be announced.
Vance said the recommendations, which have drawn both support and opposition, could change following the public hearing in May. He said a hearing examiner also will make recommendations to the water board based on what happens at the meeting in Sulphur.
“That maximum annual yield number could change, depending on evidence collected at the hearing,” Vance said. “The hearing examiner will also make a proposed order the board will consider before moving forward.”
Vance says Senate Bill 288, which passed in 2003, directed the water board to determine maximum annual yields to protect the drinking water supply for the region.
The bill also placed a moratorium on transferring water out of the aquifer until the board can determine how much water can be withdrawn without reducing stream flows to unsustainable levels. The ban on water transfers remains in place.
The Arbuckle-Simpson aquifer lies beneath parts of Carter, Coal, Johnston, Murray and Pontotoc counties in southern Oklahoma.
Dick Scalf, mayor of Ada, says complying with the water board's recommendations could end up costing his city between $8 million and $12 million. Despite that, he says he's “greatly in favor it.”
“It's just a matter of raising the money and buying the extra water,” Scalf said. “We would prefer a little longer implementation time than five years, but it's the right thing to do.”
Scalf says Ada draws most of its drinking water from Byrd's Mill Spring and that he supports any regulatory actions that aim to protect that source.
“It's what the science calls for,” he said. “It's what we need ... because we're in this for the long run.”
Lewis Parkhill, mayor of Tishomingo, agrees that protecting the streams and springs fed by the Arbuckle-
Tishomingo, which has a population of roughly 3,000, draws all of its municipal water from the aquifer-fed Pennington Creek.
Like most other cities in the region, Parkhill says Tishomingo would be hard-pressed to find another sustainable source of water if Pennington Creek dried up or stop flowing at an acceptable level.
“The aquifer is the only economical way people down here can get water,” he said.
“Getting water another way, for us, would be very expensive and it would be complicated because our other options are not good.”
Parkhill said Pennington Creek got pretty dry in the protracted drought of the 1950s, and he doesn't doubt it could happen again.
“In 1955, I believe, Pennington Creek did not have the capacity to supply the water needs of the city for a period of time,” Parkhill said.
“From what I've heard, a local farmer with a good well was all they had. People apparently were taking their jugs and filling them up, that's the story I got.”
Concern from others
While some don't have a problem with the water board's proposed maximum annual yield limits, others see it as a potential threat to their business operations.
Scott Dewald, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, said his organization has “a lot of good producers” in the areas subject to the water board's proposed water withdrawal limits.
Dewald said most of the cattle producers in the counties in question are smaller, cow-calf operations.
“But our producers are concerned any time they start talking about deteriorating their water rights,” he said.
“Most of them — I can't go out on a limb and say all of them — are extremely conservative with their water already.
“And the new maximum annual yield they've proposed, well, it could make it significantly more difficult for them.”