U.S. Water News Online
OKLAHOMA CITY — Communities in North Texas hope that a federal lawsuit and a slick promotional campaign will convince Oklahoma officials to agree to sell excess water in the southern parts of the state to meet the future needs of the rapidly growing Dallas-Fort Worth area.
So far, Oklahoma's elected leaders aren't buying it. Political opposition to helping Oklahoma's economic rival south of the Red River and concern about meeting the state's own water needs have blocked the proposed sale of up to 150 billion gallons a year to the Tarrant Regional Water District, which serves Fort Worth and nearby communities.
“Oklahomans need to come first,” said Sen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, one of several Oklahoma lawmakers who have publicly expressed opposition to the deal. “Come up here and build plants, pay taxes and employ our people, and they can use our water.”
Water district officials say Oklahoma would be helping itself by agreeing to sell excess water that flows from Cache Creek, Beaver Creek and the Kiamichi River into the Red River that separates Oklahoma and Texas.
James M. Oliver, general manager of the water district, said it is willing to pay between $15 million and $60 million a year to transport Oklahoma water to North Texas — money that could be used to build reservoirs and pipelines to deliver water to parched western Oklahoma.
And delivering much-needed water to North Texas would be a boon to the economy of southern Oklahoma, which Oliver said already benefits from the growth of the North Texas metroplex.
“Even if it's two different states, it's one big economic region,” he said. “It certainly benefits Texas but it benefits Oklahoma greatly.”
Water district officials are relying on a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and political leaders to consider its application to use Oklahoma water.
The effort includes a three-minute public relations video in which the water district makes its case that Oklahoma has more water than it needs.
The DVD opens with the image of clear, fresh water flowing from a kitchen sink faucet and overfilling a glass.
“Water. It's a precious commodity,” a professional announcer says as images of water flowing from a showerhead flash across the screen. “But Oklahoma has more water than it can use or is ever likely to use. You could even say the state's glass is overflowing.”
The video claims that the annual flow capability of the Kiamichi River alone is enough to serve 11 cities the size of Oklahoma City, the state's largest city. And frequent droughts experienced in western Oklahoma are not due to lack of water but lack of funding to build the infrastructure needed to get the water to the region.
“In times of drought, Oklahoma will always come first,” the video states.
The water district has also filed a lawsuit against OWRB members and the Oklahoma Water Conservation Storage Commission that challenges the constitutionality of a moratorium on out-of-state water sales approved by the Oklahoma Legislature.
The lawsuit, filed two years ago in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City, is set for trial on Dec. 7. However, Attorney General Drew Edmondson's office has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit based on new legislation passed by state lawmakers in May that he claims effectively repealed the moratorium.
Edmondson's office maintains the water issue should be decided by the Red River Compact Commission, which was created by Congress in 1980 to apportion water that flows along the Red River and its tributaries.
Lawmakers said the legislation was an attempt to eliminate appearances of bias against out-of-state water applicants and strengthen the state's legal position.
Among other things, the new law says no out-of-state water permit can prevent Oklahoma from meeting its obligations under interstate compacts with other states. It also requires the Water Resources Board to consider in-state water shortages or needs when considering applications for out-of-state water sales.
Lawsuit or no lawsuit, Ellis said the North Texas water district has not convinced him that it is in Oklahoma's best interest to sell its water.
“They need to prove that they've exhausted all avenues,” he said.
Ellis said he believes the area's water conservation plan is inadequate and that too much water is used to irrigate golf courses and residential gardens.
“They're watering the concrete down there is what they're doing,” Ellis said. “They're making no attempt to conserve in my opinion.”
Oliver said the region, once labeled a “water hog,” has developed an extensive water conservation plan that includes an outdoor watering ban from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., a public education campaign and the largest water-recycling program in the nation.
Ellis said reducing the water flow into the Red River would exacerbate issues it has with salt, fluoride and chemical concentrations. But Oliver said the water district would only take 6 percent of the total amount of water flowing from Oklahoma into the river.
Ellis also takes issue with the amount of money the water district is offering for Oklahoma's water.
“Even if it was the high number, it's still less than 1 percent of our state budget ($7.2 billion),” Ellis said. “Are you telling me you want to give away our most valuable natural resource for less than 1 percent of the budget?
“This is pocket change. They need to bring some folding money if they're going to buy it.”
Oliver said the price North Texas is offering is fair.
“There's not really much of a market for that water,” Oliver said. “Oklahoma has zero invested in it. There's no other user that can really use that water.”