Oklahoma’s Water Wars Pit the City Versus the Country, the State Against the Tribes. While the Parties Do Battle in Court, the Lakes Dry Up, the Aquifer Vanishes and, Still, the Lawns Stay Green and the Streets are Wet with Runoff. Water, That Once Plentiful Resource, is More Precious than Ever.
This is the second installment of a three-part series about Oklahoma’s water wars, starting with the edition of This Land dated Sept. 1, 2012.
In a recent blockbuster film, 12 “Districts” are compelled, every year, to offer up two teenagers to fight to the death in a ruthless competition called the “Hunger Games.” Broadcast from a city known only as “the Capitol,” the games are avidly watched by bloodthirsty urbanites tricked out in garish makeup and Gaga-like get-ups. The decadent city folk sip cocktails at fancy restaurants while District kids fight for their lives. Meanwhile, back in the downtrodden Districts, homespun miners and farmers watch glumly while their children die gruesome deaths on live TV.
What’s being staged here—and it might remind you of our election-year partisan politics—is the divide between two increasingly separate factions in America: the country and the city. It’s a standoff also playing out in what has come to be known as Oklahoma’s “Water Wars,” a struggle that pits the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians and residents of Southeastern Oklahoma against the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust—currently the biggest water retailer in the state—and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB), the state agency that wants to help the utility grow its water empire by granting it storage rights to Lake Sardis.
Drive the road that circles Lake Sardis and you’ll come across a billboard put up by an angry local. It features a pigtailed little girl crying, next to the plea: “Daddy, how come OKC takes all our lakes?” The decadent capitol, it seems, is about to steal the reservoir, leaving the district of Southeastern Oklahoma high and dry.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has discovered the magic of a waterfront. Nearly two decades into reviving its downtown by remaking its riverfront, OKC is seeing a payoff: This August, it had the lowest unemployment in a major U.S. city for the fifth straight month.
Now the city’s “Core to Shore” plan stakes the city’s economic future on more riverfront investment. Just as Senator Kerr predicted, water is growth. For city boosters, the complaints of a few Southeastern Oklahomans dwindle in the face of a proven economic engine.
Can this divide—between urban and rural, affluent and impoverished—be bridged? Or is Oklahoma doomed to play out its own cruel spectacle: the thirst games?
THE COUNTRY VERSUS THE CITY
“There’s a growing realization in the American West and in other water-short regions, that you can’t make water rights allocation decisions in a vacuum without considering everybody else,” Daniel McCool says. “We’re not only all downstream, but we’re all sharing the same resource.”
McCool, a professor at the University of Utah, is an expert on tribal water rights and river restoration. In his newest book, he argues that a sea change is taking place in American policy toward its rivers. Americans are up against the realization “most of the rivers are over-allocated, most groundwater basins are over-allocated and declining, some of them precipitously like the Ogallala,” McCool says. “We have serious subsidence problems in numerous places because we’ve sucked out the groundwater.”
In most places, the impact of over-allocation is being felt first by irrigators. Agricultural irrigation is by far the nation’s largest water user. Yet when states try to dial down allocations of government-subsidized water to farmers, a country versus city argument flares up. When a California court ruled in 2007 that the federal Central Valley Project was destroying endangered salmon and smelt, farmers marched through the Sacramento region chanting “Water! Water! Water!” Protestors claimed the state was putting fish ahead of farmers.
In Oklahoma irrigation represents about 36% of water consumption— around half the national average. But much of that comes from dwindling aquifers, including the Ogallala. The state’s irrigation battles are still to come. But the city/country standoff has arrived: here it’s about municipal water—Oklahoma City’s.
Cities often tap rural areas for their water. In the most infamous case, Los Angeles quietly bought up water rights to the Owens Valley, hundreds of miles away, then drained it dry, turning the formerly verdant Owens Lake into a dust bowl, now the largest source of particulate pollution in the U.S. Legal wrangling over the Owens Valley continues today. But what L.A. did was not uncommon. New York City relocated dozens of towns to build its Catskills reservoirs. Las Vegas is currently attempting to grab water from the Snake Valley, a ranching district in the Great Basin, and developers have been trying for decades to pipe groundwater from the bucolic San Luis Valley to fast-growing Denver.
In the arid West, such projects are commonplace, as are battles over them. But eastern Oklahoma is fairly flush with water, thanks to its plethora of federal projects. So why is the Sardis water causing the country to cry foul again?
BAND-AIDS OVER BULLET WOUNDS
Here’s what Oklahoma City wants to do with Sardis: pipe huge amounts of water—uphill—from one watershed to another. In the world of water tech talk, this is known as an interbasin transfer, and it’s an increasingly unpopular solution to water supply needs.
“It’s putting a band-aid over a bullet wound, taking water from one part of the state and putting it somewhere that needs that water,” David Ocamb of the Sierra Club told me. “What happens in 30 years when the donor basin needs the water?” Moving water around, he said, does not address the real problem: regulation of use. “We need to focus on water as a valuable commodity,” he said.
Ocamb is no outlier. The era of big interbasin transfer projects is over, at least in most of America. Experts also say that going out of watershed to tap new water supplies can be damaging to both the donor basin and the receiving one. A recent policy paper by the World Wildlife Fund called interbasin transfers a “pipe dream.” They disrupt fisheries, transform river dynamics and spread invasive species. They are expensive, and often unsustainable—particularly when they require energy to pump water uphill. In most cases, the report concluded, the shifting of water between basins “reflects ignorance of the social and environmental costs and a failure to adequately consider better, local alternatives.” 
Instead of building new supplies, cities around the nation have turned to “mining” their existing supply with conservation measures like smart metering, low-flow plumbing fixtures and appropriate landscaping, with the result that per capita water use has been falling across the nation. Las Vegas banned lawns for new homes in 2003. New York completed its last new reservoir in 1967, and has accommodated its growing population since then with greater efficiency and conservation. Santa Fe has reduced per capita water use by 42 percent. Seattle’s per capita consumption has dropped 36 percent since 1990.
Big water projects, critics say, are like highways: if you build it, they will come. Pipelining your way out of water scarcity is like paving your way out of traffic congestion: the more roads you build, the more users pile onto them. So it goes with water: the illusion of excess supply encourages squandering. And that deepens the growing divide between the urban area and the district whose water it uses. Another common aphorism in the water world says that water flows uphill: toward money and power. That creates a particularly bitter resentment, one apparent when Ocamb mentioned the attempts by North Texas to get Oklahoma water.
“There’s no reason that we should be exporting our water so their golf courses can remain green year round,” he said.
But many Southeastern Oklahomans feel the same bitterness toward Oklahoma City. A recent issue of Oklahoma Water Issues, put out by Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy, featured two photos on its cover: one of the Kiamichi River running dry, and another of sprinkler water pouring off a lush lawn and down a street in Oklahoma City. Later on, it told the story of “naïve city folk” who didn’t understand the value of native riparian landscapes.
But of course, Oklahoma City understands the value of a riverfront only too well. They might put it at about $5 billion—roughly the amount of private investment the city has seen since it staked its own economic future on rewatering the Oklahoma River. To some in Southeastern Oklahoma, that looks like the ultimate irony.
THE VIEW FROM THE DISTRICT
“We want the governor to rescind the contract with Oklahoma City,” Donald Faulkner declares. It’s a hot day on Memorial Day weekend and we’re having sandwiches at the Yanish Store, a general store, gas station, and diner just a stone’s throw from Lake Sardis. Faulkner, a Talihina business owner and an officer with Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy, says grace over our pulled pork and then launches into an hour and a half of impassioned critique of the state’s water policy. The main issue, he says, is that Oklahoma hasn’t actually done a thorough assessment of how much water it really has, and yet the state went ahead and sold OKC the storage rights to Sardis water.
“We had an option here of not doing this, and sitting down at the table and figuring it out, but yet the state chose to do an underhanded, behind-closed-doors action,” he tells me.
Faulkner is referring to the Water Resources Board meeting in June, 2010, when Chief Pyle of the Choctaw nation offered to make the state’s next five million dollar payment to the Army Corps of Engineers. The state claim was that selling storage rights to Sardis was necessary because Oklahoma still owed the federal government money for the lake’s construction. When Oklahoma City proposed paying off the lake—$28 million—in exchange for storage rights, the Water Resources Board agreed, in spite of the tribe’s offer. The Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes then sued.
“If it wasn’t for the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations this lake would already be gone,” Faulkner says.
The subsequent public relations war between the state and the tribes has been intense, but in Southeastern Oklahoma, the battle was already won.
“People in Southeastern Oklahoma trust the tribes a lot more than they do Oklahoma City,” Faulkner says. “In Southeastern Oklahoma the tribes pave streets. They pay for water lines; they put in sewers in our little towns. They put in wells; they build homes; they help people go to college. Oklahoma City doesn’t do a thing for southeastern Oklahoma.”
In fact, he points out, a portion of the revenues from the region’s tribal casinos go to the state, which is not required to share that money with its locality of origin. Casino revenue is thus more likely to pave OKC roads or support the NBA’s Thunder—or get diverted into the Oklahoma River—than it is to boost the struggling economy of the Southeast.
“What’s happening in Oklahoma,” Faulkner says, “and I think it’s happening in other places, is you’re starting to have an urban-rural division. It’s not Democratic-Republican; it’s urban-rural. I’ve had people in OKC say ‘you’re all just a bunch of hicks in southeastern Oklahoma; you don’t need that water. We need it up here’ And I say ‘Yeah, we do need this water. We need to utilize it and create jobs.’
There are a number of ways Lake Sardis water could create jobs for Southeastern Oklahoma—bottling companies, hydroelectricity—but in most people’s mind the most promising is tourism. Yet tourism values are not factored into the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan. The Plan defines “excess” or “surplus” water as water that is not being tapped for consumptive uses—irrigation, industry or municipal water supply. This leaves water that might be utilized as a recreational resource—or that might be needed to support stream ecosystems—open to being grabbed. For Southeastern Oklahomans, who see tourism as one of the few sunny spots in their economic future, this seems patently absurd.
It doesn’t help that OKC manages its reservoirs with little concern for the effect on the surrounding region, “yo-yo-ing” the water up and down as it’s needed in the city. Lake Sardis is a shallow lake. According to calculations done by Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy, a one-foot drop in lake level—common at OKC’s nearby reservoir, Lake Atoka—would eliminate fifty feet of shoreline in some places at Sardis. The fear of this kind of management hovers over the lake like a specter, dampening interest in development. Who wants to build a fifty-million- dollar marina, then find that in the summer months it’s frequently left high and dry? Aside from a few Corps-managed boat launches—all of which were packed to the gills on Memorial Day weekend—Sardis has almost no development. The general sense among Southeastern Oklahomans is that the tribes would build waterfront casinos along the lake if they could be assured of its integrity.
OKC currently operates its reservoirs free of in-stream flow requirements—meaning they don’t have to deliver any water to the downstream rivers if they don’t want to. Many Southeastern Oklahomans are outraged by the disregard for riverine ecosystems, but even those who care little for the environment can see that those streams are also an economic asset. “Flatwater” recreation—lake-based boating, fishing, and swimming—is popular, but it is quickly being gained on by “moving water” recreation—kayaking, fishing, hiking and swimming in rivers and streams. This kind of recreation depends on healthy stream ecosystems. Yet only one stream in Oklahoma, the Barren Fork, has been subject to a completed in-stream flow study—research crucial for establishing the minimum flow required to keep a stream ecosystem alive.
Oklahoma City seems to have little concern for the Southeast’s rivers, but it has centered its own revitalization on restoring a river landscape: the North Canadian River. Now renamed the Oklahoma River, the rewatered, rebuilt river was named an Olympic training site in 2009, prompting Rowing News to call OKC “America’s next great rowing city.” The river is now “one of the city’s crown jewels,” according to the OKC Boathouse Foundation, headed up by current Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey Kerr McClendon. A lifelong rowing aficionado, McClendon is a key force behind the Core to Shore project. He also happens to be the grand-nephew of Robert S. Kerr.
Donald Faulkner sees all this as downright disingenuous. “They’ve asked the Corps of Engineers to release 30,000 acre feet of water from Canton Lake to fill up this river in Oklahoma City, just so they can row boats on it,” he declares. “How can they say it’s okay for them to have nonconsumptive use of their water, but it’s not okay for us?”
Not only is OKC promoting the flatwater recreation it has enabled with its excess water, but the OKC Boathouse Foundation has plans for a rafting and kayaking center that will bring whitewater rapids to the Boathouse District. Adjacent to the Oklahoma River, the center will be, according to the foundation’s annual report, “the country’s only venue offering world class whitewater and flatwater kayaking in the same venue.”
THE NEW WATER POLICY ERA
“There’s no shortage of flat water in the U.S.; there’s a shortage of clean, moving rivers,” Daniel McCool told me when we talked. Yet Oklahoma City seems to have decided that any water recreation—flatwater, moving water, fake water—is best enjoyed in the capitol. That the price might be an actual moving river ecosystem does not seem to have occurred to many outside the region where the real river runs.
Linguists enjoy pointing out that the word “rival” is related to the word “river”—a rival is one who shares the same stream. Water rivalries are likely to grow more common in the coming years. As Senator Kerr’s son, Robert S. Kerr Jr., put it, “Oil is Oklahoma’s past; water is Oklahoma’s future.”
The question is, what does that future look like? Is it an endless stream of squabbles over who has the right to water? Is it one party— whether the Capitol or agribusiness—dictating to everyone else? In an era of increasing climate uncertainty, growing population and looming water scarcity, many places around the nation are finding that cooperation is far superior to competition. In the next section, we’ll look at some of them, and what Oklahoma could learn from them.
This is the second installment of a three-part series about Oklahoma’s water wars, starting with the edition of This Land dated Sept. 1, 2012.