A diverse group of legislators will serve on the House-Senate special committee looking at water policy, Oklahoma legislative leaders announced last week. In the midst of the worst drought in modern state history, the session drew widespread attention.
Sen. Brian Crain of Tulsa will be co-chairman of the water committee, with Rep. Phil Richardson of Minco as the House co-chair.
The Joint Legislative Water Committee will begin meeting August 17, with the stated assignment of exploring state water needs for the coming five decades. Members held an organizational meeting at the Capitol this morning, followed by the press conference.
The co-chairmen, and the leaders making the announcement, represent the overwhelming majority Republicans now enjoy in the Legislature. However, diverse views and conflicting opinions seem almost assured from the composition of the panel.
Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman of Sapulpa and Speaker of the House Kris Steele unveiled the committee membership at a well-attended state Capitol press conference today. Several panel members attended.
In addition to members of both House and Senate, included on the water panel are advocates and foes of water sales to Texas, defenders and critics of water supply infrastructure for Oklahoma City, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.
Speaker Steele said the work of the joint committee was important, and that initially the focus would be on gaining a full understanding of the Comprehensive Water Plan, now in draft stage, prepared by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Steele said the first thing to do would be actually to understand projections OWRB has made.
Sen. Ellis, a strong critic of potential water sales to Texas, came to the microphone a few times to respond to questions from reporters. He indicated he was happy to be included in the discussion.
Later, he emphasized he did not support water sales to Texas in any circumstances, appearing to take issue with comments from the President Pro Temp that such sales were among the issues that “should be on the table” for consideration.
He argued that the intense drought conditions facing Oklahoma this year support his belief that state water policy “has to be ready for the extremes.” Ellis, a Valliant Democrat, recalled a three-year period when he was younger (1954, 1955 and 1956), “when we faced a situation like the one we’re in now.”
Ellis said a variety of possible scenarios for litigation would follow any decisions to sell water to Texas.
Another critic of water sales, Democratic state Rep. Brian Renegar of McAlester, said he believed all decisions about use of water resources “should be based on scientific evidence and not on emotion.”
Reporters pressed members of the committee on a range of issues, including the role of federally-recognized Indian tribes. Steele said the views of the state’s tribes, and their assertions of historic treaty rights to water resources, would be one focus of the committee’s consideration.
In prepared statements, Steele and Bingman described their expectations.
Steele asserted, “Oklahoma’s future prosperity is absolutely dependent on water. Water policy affects all parts of the state, so we assembled this committee in a way that ensures all voices are heard.
“Taking action today to provide tomorrow’s Oklahomans with the water they need is an awesome responsibility that our entire state must confront together. This committee is serious about providing the bold leadership Oklahoma needs on this issue.”
President Pro Temp Bingman said, “It is my goal that we thoroughly evaluate the water needs of our state and carefully consider Oklahoma’s stewardship of this most precious resource.
“We are blessed to have the water resources we have in Oklahoma. As policymakers, we must take the most studious and thoughtful approach possible to ensure that these resources benefit our state and remain abundant for generations to come.”
In prepared statements, the co-chairmen laid out their vision for the work ahead:
“This committee will have an open mind and open door. It’s not a committee about selling water. It’s not a committee about a water plan. It’s a committee about water, and we’ll see where it goes,” Sen. Crain said.
“We are here to ask the tough questions that the Legislature needs to be ready to address. What we do know is input will be encouraged and sought from tribal nations, citizens, government officials, engineers, water quality experts, recreational enthusiasts and whoever else has it. We’re here to listen, learn and take whatever actions are necessary.”
Rep. Richardson commented, “The current drought and heat are stark reminders of why we need a responsible water policy foundation in Oklahoma. More droughts and extreme weather are sure to come, and if we’re not prepared, water supplies will dry up and infrastructure will break down. Without proper water planning, we’ll put ourselves at risk of going dry when we need water the most. This committee’s goal is to avoid that outcome by laying the water foundation Oklahoma needs.”
In addition to the co-chairmen, the following legislators are serving on the Joint Committee:
Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Branan
Rep. Guy Liebmann, R-Oklahoma City
Rep. Charles Ortega, R-Altus
Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa
Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita
Rep. R.C. Pruett, D-Antlers
Rep. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester
Sen. Eddie Fields, R-Wynona
Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City
Sen. Ron Justice, R-Chickasha
Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward
Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore
Sen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant
Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada