Oklahoma’s water future looks much brighter thanks to the show of support from Governor Mary Fallin and legislative leaders during the session that adjourned last Friday, the director of the state’s water agency said May 30.
“On the heels of the most scientifically defensible and extensively vetted Water Plan ever developed by the state, the Governor and Legislature responded with perhaps the most meaningful collection of water policy legislation and funding in Oklahoma history,” according to J.D. Strong, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. “Due to the courageous approach of State leaders in addressing Oklahoma’s many critical water problems, the dedication of Joint Legislative Water Committee members, and a significant educational campaign, we now have both the directive and tools necessary to meet head-on Oklahoma’s water challenges through revitalized water management and protection programs.”
First and foremost, Strong points out, water conservation took a giant leap forward through passage of Speaker of the House Kris Steele’s Water for 2060 Act, which makes Oklahoma the first state in the nation to establish a comprehensive, statewide goal of consuming no more fresh water in 2060 than is consumed today. A 15-member advisory council will be created to recommend appropriate water conservation practices, incentives and educational programs to accomplish this bold strategy, while at the same time ensuring that Oklahoma’s population and economy continue to grow and prosper.
“Throughout development of the 2012 Update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan, time and again the public stressed the importance of eliminating waste and preserving our dwindling water supplies,” adds Strong. A related measure, HB 2835 by Rep. Scott Martin, will encourage widespread recycling of gray water. The new law exempts the use of up to 250 gallons per day of private, residential gray water from regulatory requirements when used for household gardening, composting or landscape irrigation, thus conserving fresh water supplies.
Equally important, legislators also rose to the challenge of meeting Oklahoma’s projected $82 billion water and wastewater infrastructure financing needs through HJR 1085 by Rep. Phil Richardson and Sen. Brian Crain. The resolution authorizes State Question 764 on the November general election ballot, which seeks voter approval of a new Credit Enhancement Reserve Fund. The crucial new Fund would enable the OWRB, which currently provides low-interest financing for approximately 70 percent of water and sewer infrastructure in Oklahoma, to increase its leveraging capacity. Should the measure fail, the agency’s Financial Assistance Program would be reduced to funding only five to ten percent of infrastructure needs over the next 50 years, ultimately resulting in increased rates for drinking water and sewer customers across Oklahoma. To date, the FAP has approved almost $2.7 billion in projects.
Last but certainly not least, last week’s budget agreement includes specific funding to expand and integrate the state’s water quality and quantity monitoring programs, another key provision of the OCWP.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Strong affirmed. “Through almost five years of public input central to development of the Water Plan, the citizens of Oklahoma made it abundantly clear that they want their water agencies to have the data and information necessary to ensure that sound water decisions are made. Governor Fallin and the Legislature responded with $2 million in additional appropriations with which the OWRB and Conservation Commission will expand and improve our data collection capabilities.” Most notably, the OWRB will use a portion of the funding to establish the state’s first comprehensive groundwater monitoring program. The Legislature also extended utilization of Gross Production Tax proceeds for OCWP implementation, including support of planning partnership opportunities, updates of hydrologic studies, and enhancement of water management and modeling tools.
In all, bills passed during the 2012 legislative session will accelerate implementation of four of the eight priority recommendations included in the 2012 OCWP Update (Water Quality and Quantity Monitoring; Water Supply Reliability; Water Conservation, Efficiency, Recycling and Reuse; and Water Project and Infrastructure Funding). Additional legislation providing for improved enforcement of water well drilling regulations and enhanced floodplain management rules address at least two OCWP supporting recommendations.
“We are off to a tremendous start on Water Plan implementation, but there is still much to do,” Strong emphasizes. “Regional planning, for example, was the most popular Water Plan recommendation among citizen participants because it allows them to engage more formally in how water resources are planned at the local level and managed by the state. However, enabling legislation was narrowly defeated due to the negative lobbying efforts of certain special interest groups. Additionally,” adds Strong,” we must redouble our efforts to work with Oklahoma’s tribal governments to resolve conflicting water issues. And we still need to ensure adequate protection of instream flows that are so critical to state and local tourism economies. So while the Water Board and our multitude of partners made great strides this year, primarily due to the steadfast support of our leaders at the State Capitol, we recognize that considerable work lies ahead.”