While Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s emergency drought declaration last week institutes state disaster relief measures, staff of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board continue working with water users and citizens to alleviate growing water supply problems.
According to OWRB Executive Director J.D. Strong, the OWRB is receiving dozens of inquiries every day either reporting drought-related water problems or requesting some type of technical or financial assistance. “While our data tell us when Oklahoma is in the midst of drought, it’s the people on the ground—the citizens of Oklahoma and our water user community—that let us know about the severity of drought impacts.” The OWRB administers water rights in Oklahoma, monitors the quantity and quality of surface and groundwater, and provides financial assistance to address water infrastructure needs.
Just last month, Strong appeared before the congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to share information on Oklahoma’s ongoing drought impacts as well as examine recent federal efforts to improve drought monitoring and forecasting. More recently, agency staff met with emergency management, agriculture, environmental quality, and climate officials to coordinate State Drought Management Team activities. The OWRB chairs the Team’s Water Availability and Outlook Committee. Last week, the OWRB hosted a meeting of the Corps of Engineers’ Interagency Drought Management Committee, consisting of numerous state and federal water management agencies, which provided a briefing of the drought’s effects upon federal reservoir projects and their near-term ability to provide required water supply, navigation, hydropower and related benefits.
This is Oklahoma’s third major drought episode in the last six years. Once again, the statewide drought has drastically reduced river flows and lake and aquifer levels, causing severe impacts to household, agricultural, municipal, industrial, and recreational water users. As Oklahoma experiences one of its driest periods since 1936, the U.S. Drought Monitor reports that virtually the entire state is in the “severe” drought category; about 72 percent is considered “extreme.” Apart from the abnormally hot temperatures, the difference this year is that Oklahoma entered 2012 with an existing water deficit due to last year’s drought, Strong says.
During drought situations, including the current one, the OWRB receives frequent requests for help from water users experiencing reduced yields from domestic water wells. “Those individuals who don’t have access to a municipal or rural water system are particularly vulnerable to drought and dry periods,” Strong points out. “We can investigate the problem and provide information to the landowner on obtaining the services of a licensed well driller who can deepen their well or, if needed, construct an entirely new well. Of course, we encourage individuals to tie onto public water supply systems wherever possible.”
He adds that the agency often helps water users, including those who manage water systems, find alternative sources or secure emergency water from a stream, lake, or aquifer. If the OWRB is unable to provide direct assistance, they are directed to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Quality, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Grand River Dam Authority, USDA Rural Development, Rural Water Association, Municipal League, or others who can help.
During times of water use emergencies, the OWRB can also expedite the water permitting process by issuing short-term, interim permits. While the OWRB grants permits for the use of water from federal reservoirs, the Corps of Engineers also requires users to obtain water storage contracts. In drought situations, the Corps can issue emergency water withdrawal permits for use of less than one acre-foot (325,850 gallons) for domestic or industrial use.
Many water systems, especially older facilities, fall apart under the strain of greatly increased customer demand for water during drought. Through almost $2.7 billion in water and wastewater construction since 1983, the OWRB’s loan and grant programs have helped improve dramatically the drought resistance of treatment and distribution systems, according to Ford Drummond, Chairman of the OWRB.
“Where during the early 1980s we saw hundreds of communities and rural districts rationing water or experiencing system failure due to unprecedented demand on aging infrastructure, today only a handful of water systems statewide have been forced to institute mandatory water rationing. That is largely attributable to the fortification of Oklahoma’s water and sewer systems through OWRB financial assistance,” Drummond says.
The OWRB’s funding process can be accelerated for eligible systems experiencing drought-related problems, he points out, adding that the Governor’s drought declaration triggers an agency rule allowing up to $300,000 in OWRB grants to provide drought-related emergency aid for rural and municipal water facilities.
Bob Drake, who serves as Chairman of the OWRB’s Drought Committee, knows from his long experience in ranching near Davis that impacts to his business are only a microcosm of those inflicting ranchers and other Oklahomans throughout this extended drought episode. “Dry farm ponds, rising feed prices, dwindling herds, and now the extreme fire danger—a particular threat to dry pastureland—will affect Oklahoma ranchers, as well as consumers, for years to come. We must become more vigilant in preparing for Oklahoma’s inevitable droughts.”
Increased conservation is the key, Drake adds. “Conservation—along with wise development and infrastructure upgrades—is imperative, as recognized in the 2012 Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan Update and by the newly enacted Water for 2060 initiative. All water users must be fully committed to pursuing innovative strategies and to curbing wasteful practices and old habits that leave us more vulnerable to drought.”