THE closer we get to release of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan, the farther we seem to get from any chance of reaching consensus on the best way to ensure that the state's water needs are met for the next half century or more.
Draft sections of the water plan estimate it will take $87 billion — that's billion, with a B — to pay for the infrastructure improvements that are likely to be needed to move and supply drinking water during the next 50 years. That amount doesn't include what it would cost to build additional reservoirs, which may be needed in some parts of the state.
The draft sections, which reporter Randy Ellis explored in detail in Sunday's Oklahoman, also mention that a dozen of the state's 82 watershed basins are most likely to see significant surface water shortages or groundwater depletions in the coming years. This doesn't mean any of them will dry up, only that they're more likely than the others to experience problems.
These are issues that will require strong, proactive leadership — we can't treat water the way we did Oklahoma's roads and bridges, where the state only got serious about improving them after a motorist was killed by a chunk of concrete that fell from an aging bridge. And they are issues that will require a willingness by many parties to work together for the benefit of the state as a whole.
This is what has us nervous.
Indian tribes contend they own the water that sits or runs through their allotted lands, and therefore they must sign off on any water deals. The Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes have threatened to sue over a deal Oklahoma City made last year to gain access to water at Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma. A University of Oklahoma law professor, in a report to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, encourages the state to negotiate with tribes to resolve water rights issues. A Chickasaw attorney said the tribe doesn't want a court fight over water but also made it clear: “Our position is it's ours — you don't have anything.”
Meantime there are southeastern Oklahoma legislators who vehemently oppose moving water out of that region. They are particularly worked up about the idea of selling to cities in North Texas water that now flows, unused, out of Oklahoma. To make sure this doesn't happen, the Legislature in 2009 voted for a bill that gave it the final say on any out-of-state water sales.
The director of planning for the water plan, Kyle Arthur, said its release won't necessarily answer the question of whether such sales should happen. “It all depends on how you define surplus water,” he told Ellis.
Given that, we doubt selling water elsewhere will ever happen. For Oklahoma's sake, such intransigence on other water-related issues cannot be the rule.