Nice River. How Much?

by This Land


Ecological signs point to a water crisis on the horizon that will make “peak oil” look like a bad case of running-out-of-Tiffany-cufflinks. One-third of all countries presently experience at least some pressure on their water resources; entire countries (such as Yemen) are expected to deplete their water tables completely by, well, next week. A United Nations report projects that 5 billion people will encounter daily shortages by 2025, with half of these “severe.” In the United States, large cities from super-dry Los Angeles to super-damp Seattle, will run into shortfalls by 2020.

In Texas, the pinch has already arrived. The Commission on Environmental Quality publishes a helpful list of public water systems that place restrictions on usage in order to avoid shortages. The April 1 edition lists 172 such systems. And though per-capita usage is on a moderate decline, growth over the next few decades will push demand up by around 20 percent, while supply diminishes by about the same amount.

Well, we all know what happens when supply and demand come together: you go grab up some new supply, pronto!

The Kiamichi River basin is Oklahoma’s most prolific watershed, with an annual flow of 1.5 million acre-feet. Only 4% of this is presently being used, mostly by Western Farmers Electric Cooperative plus the Public Works Authorities of Hugo, Sardis Lake, and Talihina. There’s a huge, Texan eye pointed squarely at that other 96%.

Lots of eyes, in fact. As early as 2000, proposals had been made by the North Texas Municipal Water District, the McGraw-Hill engineering firm, and a private land developer to redirect some of southern Oklahoma’s excess water to where it’s needed a tad bit more. These inquiries prompted State Senator Jerry Ellis (D-Valiant) to enact a moratorium on all out-of-state water sales. The would-be buyers responded by suing in Federal Court on the basis that the moratorium violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The names painted on the offices have changed in the intervening years, but not much else. In 2004, legislators extended the moratorium until November 2009 or such time as the Joint Committee on Water planning completes a review and recommendation study, now expected some time in 2011. In case of failure in the federal court, North Texas has extended its overtures to the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, which has a right to a different part of the Red River Basin. The tribe, in fact, joined the constitutional challenge to the moratorium to ensure that they could sell water from Cache Creek and Beaver Creek, which flow into the Red River west of the Kiamichi.

It’s almost a certainty, then, that a sale is going to go through; agencies such as the Oklahoma Water Resources Board worry what might happen in lean years to come if the region is committed to an export level–come hell or low water–and have to meet this quota at the expense of its own residents’ needs.

One thing’s for sure: it wouldn’t be the first time. In 1944 the government of Mexico agreed to share the excess water from six important Rio Grande tributaries with its northerly neighborly government, the United States of America. “Excess” proved here, as elsewhere, to be a relative category, built around too small a time frame. Mexican agriculture boomed with population over the last half-century, and recurrent droughts have made it exquisitely painful for Mexico to honor the treaty, to the point that she currently stands in over 300 billion gallons of hydraulic debt. Texas farmers recently demanded $1 billion in reparations for lost yields. Mexican border agriculture is essentially in crisis over this.

With so much of the Kiamichi’s water going unused, it’s easy to dismiss the possibility of real shortages in the near future. Time appears to be on Oklahoma’s side. Or rather, it was easy to dismiss it until “Water Year 2006” (October 1, 2005, to September 30, 2006). Statewide conditions were among the driest in the century-long record, with lower precipitation than even the Dust Bowl years–and the Kiamichi was not spared. Reviewing the data, the Water Resources Board concluded that the period 1980-2000 was abnormally wet, and residents grew complacent about their natural resources at the worst possible time.

Jim Oliver of the Tarrant Regional Water District in Texas promises not to repeat the recent history with Mexico: “We’d be willing to sign a contract that if Oklahoma ever needs this water back, we’d give it up,” he told the U.S. Water News in 2007, possibly in response to Oklahomans’ new awareness of their supply’s fragility. Nevertheless, Oklahoma has–so far–adopted a wait-and-see posture to the point that Ellis and the OWRB have been accused of stalling.

Prompted by the 2002-06 drought, the Water Resources Board began a 5-year study of water resources and policy. Those of you who can subtract quickly will have figured out that it is now in its final stages. The plan incorporates vast technical materials, input from tribal leadership and–yep–town halls. The OWRB’s chief partner in the study is the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals, an independent citizens’ organization that hosts an annual multi-day conference on critical concerns of the state. Water is the topic this time, and the conference is set for the end of May.

If you run out of gasoline, you just walk. If you run out of water, you just die. You never heard of an initiative to migrate toward “dry organisms” the way you hear about migration to “clean energy.” The good news is that water–unlike oil–doesn’t just burn up and become non-water. It changes form but doesn’t run out; it only has to be treated, with care, and it will go through its cycle again. Therein lies the immense intellectual challenge in water conservation. Can long-term sustainability take its rightful place in natural resource policy?

Brian Vance, Director of Information at the OWRB, thinks it can and–finally, in Oklahoma’s case–will. “This is by far the most extensive study like this that’s ever been done in Oklahoma… I think we’ve got a great product.”

Vance’s “product” is next year’s report to the legislature. Everyone who needs water to live should be anxious to see it.