While lawsuit reaches boiling point, other water issues scrutinized

 Using Water Awareness Day as a “hook” or “peg,” members of the House of Representatives this week laid out a set of water plan priorities focused on conservation, infrastructure, monitoring and planning issues.  In a briefing for state Capitol reporters that drew a contingent of observant lobbyists, the House members made a point to focus as much as possible on the overarching need for development of a state water plan.

While trying to avoid explicit reference to the litigation brewing between the Fallin administration and two of the state’s largest tribes, Speaker of the House Kris Steele said, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK about funding for the litigation.  He said he would support the chief executive’s request for a possible $5 million appropriation to finance the state’s legal work versus the tribes, if the issue is not resolved.

In prepared comments, Steele said the Legislature must work on other important, if less contentious, aspects of water policy even as the state defends itself in the lawsuit.

The Choctaw and Chickasaw nations are suing over a contract between the state and Oklahoma City for storage rights to Sardis Lake. Since early this month, an increasingly test series of exchanges between Fallin and tribal leaders Bill Anoatubby (the Chicksaw governor) and Gregory Pyle (the Choctaw chief) have dominated discussion of water policy.

In his comments yesterday (February 13), Steele said, “We are still hopeful that the tribal nations’ claims concerning southeastern Oklahoma water rights will be resolved outside of court. Until then, there are several other areas of water policy outside the scope of that litigation that this state must address.

“We will not be deterred by litigation and will work aggressively this session to lay a foundation for Oklahoma’s water future. As the elected officials of all Oklahomans, it is our duty to ensure each and every Oklahoman has the water they need.”
Fallin issued a statement late yesterday supportive of the House perspective on water policy isuses. Fallin said,  “Water use is one of the most important issues facing Oklahoma. It affects every area of the state as well as a wide array of industries including oil and natural gas, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. I am committed to developing water policy that serves the needs of all Oklahomans. Doing so is important to our economy, our environment and our local communities.

“I applaud the House of Representatives for bringing constructive ideas to the table regarding water planning, infrastructure and conservation. I look forward to working with lawmakers and elected officials to develop forward-thinking policies that best serve the interests of the entire state and every Oklahoman.”
Introducing a cluster of proposals, Steele said, “Providing water for all Oklahomans is among the greatest responsibilities we have today to the citizens of tomorrow. While we won’t be able to solve all our water issues in just one year, pursuing these policies this session will allow us to lay a foundation to build on in future years.”

In June, Steele had formed the Joint Water Committee. The panel studied water policy, water law, tribal water issues and other issues. The committee examined recommendations in the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan (OCWP) delivered to legislators in October.

Steele contends water policy must be a priority for the state’s “pro-growth” trends to remain a reality.

“If Oklahoma wants to be pro-growth, water policy must be a priority,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “Without water, the state can’t grow, so we must do everything we can to ensure we have the water we need. It’s as big a part of being pro-growth as anything.”
One presenter at this week’s house vent was state Rep. Phil Richardson, a Minco Republican. His House Bill 2914 aims to establish 13 regional planning groups. Floor Leader Dale DeWitt of Braman, and Rep. Ron Peters of Tulsa, both Republicans, and Democratic Rep. Brian Renegar of McAlester also have legislation related to regional planning groups.

The regional planning groups have been criticized in some quarters, but Richardson defended the idea, telling reporters, “Other states have these groups and have found them very valuable. With every region of Oklahoma having different water needs, regional planning groups will help policymakers take all needs into account when making water decisions.”

Also in the House agenda is the practice of water monitoring, described as “regularly gathering data to determine the quantity and quality of surface and groundwater in basins statewide.” Presently, 36 of the Sooner State’s 87 groundwater basins either lack monitoring or are past due for updated studies.

Analyses in the comprehensive water plan project water and wastewater infrastructure needs totaling $82 billion for the next five decades most of that in rural or smaller communities. He OWRB’s current financing programs can handle about 10 percent of that projected need.

Steele says he hopes to reform and enhance infrastructure finance, building on loan and grant programs that have financed $2.6 billion for local projects since 1983. The Speaker continued, “Under the reforms we’re discussing, we hope these programs could meet up to 60 percent of our future needs rather than the 10 percent the programs could meet today.”

Steele pointed to analysis in the comprehensive plan that “consumptive water use” will increase 33 percent by 2060 unless current policies and practices change. Steele House Bill 3055, deemed the “Water for 2060 Act” sets a goal for he state to consume no more fresh water in that year than it does today. The focus of the legislation is water conservation, and creation of an advisory council to make recommendations on how to meet that goal.

Also advancing a conservation proposal is state Rep. Scott Martin of Norman, the Republican author of House Bill 2385, to give homeowners more flexibility on use of “gray water” on their own property. Gray water is defined as “left over from domestic activities like laundry, dishwashing and bathing that is safe for reuse in irrigation activities like watering flowerbeds or lawns.”
Last week, a variety of business groups issued a joint critique of the comprehensive water plan. Members included the State Chamber of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Oklahoma Municipal League, Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, Oklahoma Aggregates Association, Environmental Federation of Oklahoma and Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association of Oklahoma.

The group contended many recommendations in the comprehensive plan would “increase the size of government, increase costs, adversely impact existing water rights, encroach on private property rights and create artificial water shortages, among other concerns.”

The group’s paper outlined support for some recommendations, including:  Funding for water projects and infrastructure; Opportunities for regular input from the public regarding water use; Regular monitoring of water quality; Encouraging voluntary initiatives for water conservation, efficiency, recycling and reuse; and the Legislature’s efforts to establish a unified water policy.