Supplying Oklahoma's water needs will be difficult, costly

It is expected to cost $87 billion for improvements to meet Oklahoma's drinking water needs over the next 50 years, according to draft sections of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan currently being circulated in the state.
BY RANDY ELLIS rellis@opubco.com Published: June 5, 2011
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It is expected to cost $87 billion for improvements to meet Oklahoma's drinking water needs over the next 50 years.

That's roughly 13 times Oklahoma's entire state budget. That includes the money to build, replace and expand water plants, pumps, wells and water lines, but doesn't include any new reservoirs that might be built.

Figuring out a way to pay for those improvements is one of many challenges that must be overcome if Oklahomans are to continue to enjoy safe and reliable water supplies, according to draft sections of a 50-year water plan scheduled for release in 2012.

Oklahomans also will have to figure out fairly quickly how to deal with 12 “hot spot” watershed basins in western Oklahoma where significant water supply challenges are likely to develop within the next 10 years, the draft report indicates.

For years, Oklahomans have been anxiously awaiting completion and publication of the latest update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan — a massive compilation of research and recommendations that state leaders are counting on to help answer several questions critical to the state's future.

Among the most pressing:

• Are Oklahomans likely to experience water shortages over the next 50 years? If so, where?

• How can Oklahomans possibly pay for $87 billion in needed water infrastructure improvements?

• Should new reservoirs be built? What would be the best locations?

• Do Oklahoma Indian tribes have legitimate claims to water rights in various parts of the state?

• Should Oklahoma sell water to Texas?

Simple questions, but the answers are complex.

Transfer system

A 1980 water study raised the possibility of Oklahoma developing a massive water transfer system to move water from reservoirs in eastern Oklahoma where water is relatively plentiful to locations in western Oklahoma where water is scarce.

That report immediately created a furor. Southeastern Oklahoma political leaders complained such a system would deplete southeastern municipal and industrial water supplies and cause downturns in the economy of an already depressed area. Oklahomans throughout the state objected to the high cost — about $11 billion in 1978 dollars.

The idea of a statewide water transfer system failed to gain traction.

Oklahoma City, however, did take steps to secure future water supplies from southeastern Oklahoma — creating a furor of its own in the process.

Oklahoma City entered into a $42 million deal with the state last June to purchase storage rights to 90 percent of the water in southeastern Oklahoma's Sardis Lake.

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