Troubled Waters III: Balancing Act

by Ginger Strand

This is the third installment of a three-part series about Oklahoma’s water wars, starting with the edition of This Land dated Sept. 1, 2012.

Troubled Waters, Part I: Oklahoma Water Wars

Troubled Waters, Part II: Urban vs. Rural

The summer’s epic drought was parching Oklahoma’s cattle, and wildfires had just closed I-35 when I got fried by my drinking water. This summer, New York City opened four of its water supply bodies to non-motorized recreational boating, and I spent a July day rowing one of my favorite fishing kayaks near the Pepacton Reservoir. But I skipped the sunscreen. Who wants to overturn a kayak and drink factor 50 from the tap next month?

I pointed out my sunburn to Diane Galusha in her upstate New York office and told her I had come to discuss the Sooner State.

“The boating program has been 15 years in the making,” Galusha said. Catskill tourism interests wanted it, and New York City—jumpy about contamination—finally agreed. My sunburn was thus sponsored by one of the many compromises negotiated among stakeholders in the nation’s largest unfiltered municipal water supply. It’s just the kind of thing Galusha thinks other municipalities might learn from in an era where conflicts over water are growing all too common.

Galusha is a compact woman with a no-nonsense air. A Catskills resident, she authored the classic history of New York City’s water: Liquid Assets. Now she is communications director for the Catskills Watershed Corporation, a non-profit corporation that supports watershed communities. The CWC was created by the 1997 Memorandum of Agreement, a contract between the city, the EPA, state agencies, and watershed towns.

“It was a landmark agreement between parties that previously were thought to have nothing in common,” Galusha said. “The MOA gives all parties a voice.”

New York City first went upstate for its water in the 1830s. Since then, 19 reservoirs have been completed, first just north of the city, then 100 miles upstate in the Catskill Mountains. The system provides a billion gallons of water daily for 9 million people. Building it wasn’t easy. New Jersey and Pennsylvania sued in the 1920s to keep New York from tapping the Delaware River—the Supreme Court gave New York a green light in 1931. Even more controversial was the city’s condemnation of Catskills land through eminent domain. More than 30 upstate communities lost land to the city’s thirst. The memory of that lives on, as do complaints about the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, whose ubiquitous DEP police enforce watershed regulations. At local bars, it’s not uncommon to hear the DEP called an occupying army.

But in the last few decades, a new era has dawned, healing some of the classic rift between city and country. New York is investing not just in stringent environmental protections for its unfiltered water, but in the health of watershed communities. And rather than developing new water sources, since the late ‘60s New York has met the thirst of its growing population with conservation.

New York City’s water policies are not perfect. But talking with the DEP, and with water supply experts around the nation, I began to see the outlines of the future of water supply management. It’s a future based on the understanding that moving water from one basin to another is not ideal, but it can be managed in a way that mitigates damage to the environment and compensates donor communities fairly.

It’s also a future many in Oklahoma told me they would like to start heading toward, rather than one centered on rancor, litigation, and confrontation.


Managing New York City’s water supply starts with protecting the environment—first and foremost the rivers and streams that feed and exit the reservoirs. The city has a system of more than 50 stream gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Service.

“There are gauges both upstream and downstream of our reservoirs,” said David Warne, assistant commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection. “They give us a variety of information about inflow and outflow that helps us balance the reservoirs, helps us make sure we’re hitting the release targets.” By release targets, he means the mandated stream flow requirements for downstream rivers and creeks. These guarantee water for downstream users, but that’s not their only purpose.

“It’s a pretty complex web of benefits,” Warne says. “They sustain fisheries and the ecological health of the streams below the dams. They serve multiple recreation benefits: fishing, kayaking, and other activities. As you get way downstream, in dry conditions those releases help keep the salt front at bay, benefiting the water supply of downstream cities like Philadelphia.”

With the help of a computerized operations support tool, the city can move water among its reservoirs to achieve the best balance in water quality and quantity. They also try to avoid “drawing down” the reservoirs, since they are also considered ecosystems.

LISTEN: Hear Dr. Lewis Ziska, a plant ecologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, speak with This Land Radio about feeding the world’s growing population, the monoculture of McDonald’s fries, and the future look of our grocery stores.

“The reservoirs support a different range of benthic and aquatic life than the upstream and downstream streams do,” Warne said. “Our reservoirs are stocked by the state with fish; they are very popular recreational fisheries.”

Southeastern Oklahoma’s reservoirs are also popular fishing destinations. Broken Bow Lake produced the state’s record largemouth bass, Hugo is known for its catfish, and Eufala is a one of the state’s top crappie lakes. Lake Sardis, currently coveted by Oklahoma City, hosts one of the state’s top bass fisheries.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has consistently weighed in on OKC’s Sardis plans by calling for increased reservoir levels between April and August to support fish spawning and recruitment. A fisheries management plan issued in 2011 stated that “water level plans should be considered with equal value to other beneficial public uses as future water diversions are proposed.” But the OWRB’s 50-year plan ignores nonconsumptive uses. Many in the Sardis region see this as ironic, given OKC’s own focus on “nonconsumptive” recreational water use in its riverfront development.

“We’ve asked for lake level management,” Donald Faulkner of Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy told me as we lunched a stone’s throw from Lake Sardis. “We can’t get it.”

This is especially frustrating to his group, which boasts a membership of more than 12,000 citizens, because they believe the recreational values of Sardis may surpass its water supply value. “Oklahoma State did a study on Lake Tenkiller,” he told me. “The consumptive value generated about a ten million dollar economic value for the area. The nonconsumptive part of Tenkiller generated over a hundred million dollars’ worth of economic impact a year. Your boat jobs, your marinas, your convenience stores, your lodging, your boats, your fuel—all that generated over a hundred million dollars of economic impact, yet the state’s saying that doesn’t matter.”

This was typical of my conversations with water experts: the talk moved seamlessly from environmental values to dollar value. Ecology, it seems, is inseparable from economy.


“This region was not created as a source of water for New York City,” Diane Galusha told me at Catskills Watershed Corporation headquarters. “60,000 people live here and do business here.”

In fact, the Catskills today could be said to have a water supply economy. New York City pays more than $130 million annually in taxes to its watershed towns—it is the largest single taxpayer in many of them—and has invested more than $1.5 billion in protecting the watershed. Much of this goes toward protecting the water—replacing old septic systems, building sewers and helping farmers install stream buffers. But there are also programs to support small businesses, education, health care, and recreation in the watershed communities. And the water supply itself creates jobs, in construction, compliance and recreation.

“We do believe that operating a large unfiltered water supply can be compatible with vibrant, economically healthy local communities,” David Warne of the DEP told me.

Being a water supply region was once a death sentence to the local economy. Today, with awareness of water’s value on the rise, water-rich regions now see their resource as an asset—and expect to profit from it. Robert Jackman, a Tulsa petroleum geologist, thinks the southeast’s water could be used to help combat local economic woes.

“You’ve got ten or twelve counties down there with infant mortality rates among the highest in the nation,” he told me. “Life expectancies are extremely low. This water asset is the ladder that we can use to help bring this ten county area up out of its generational poverty and break it. But if Oklahoma City or Texas gets it, they’re going to make this part of Oklahoma nothing but a water colony or water plantation.”

Donald Faulkner of ORWP agreed, if in more measured terms.

“We don’t have interstates running through southeastern Oklahoma,” he told me. “We don’t have oil wells in southeastern Oklahoma; we don’t have a large city or state government. What we have is water. And we’re just now maturing enough to understand what we need to do to utilize that resource to make an economic impact to improve our standard of living.”

And Jackman is right that the reservoirs do not benefit the communities that host them. Because the reservoirs are federal projects, Oklahoma City does not pay property taxes on them.

“By condemnation they displaced 200 to 250 families, but they don’t pay any property taxes,” Jackman told me. “So this is direct hit on the local schools. And then they don’t pay anything for the water.”


Communities in donor basins are sensitive to the notion that a city is getting their water too cheaply—especially if they think that water is squandered. People in southeastern Oklahoma are outraged by photographs of water running off Oklahoma City lawns and down the street. New York has faced this too. After years of being criticized for its leaky infrastructure and high use, New York City moved aggressively to reduce losses and increase conservation.

“The city has always been really conscious of its water image,” Diane Galusha told me. “It has made a lot of progress and has reduced consumption by a great amount.”

The water policy world calls this “demand reduction” or “mining the existing supply.” It is currently the most popular way to slake the thirst of a growing population. But the Oklahoma Water Resources Board assumes no such improvements in its Water Demand Forecast Report. Per capita use and system losses are expected to remain constant.

Many policy experts I talked to found this surprising, since water consumption per capita is dropping radically nationwide. Major cities across the nation have reduced per capita water use and in some places, such as California, reductions have been statewide. Conservation not only makes sense; it’s considered an act of good faith in the communities where the water originates.

It’s not that Oklahoma’s cities are water hogs. Irrigation remains the state’s largest single water user, and among municipal users, population density increases efficiency. Oklahoma’s most populous counties already have the lowest per capita water consumption rates in the state. But conservation improvements can still be made, and doing so could help improve relations with Southeasterners. Yet the OWRB Fifty Year Plan offers two uninspiring conservation scenarios—a “moderate” scenario that would halt consumption at the 2020 level, and a “substantial” scenario that would keep water usage flat until 2060. According to trusted plumbing contractors, all of the innovative solutions proposed in the substantial scenario—low-flow plumbing appliances, improved building codes, metering, tiered rate structures, better conveyance— have been widely used for decades elsewhere.

“We’re probably the only state in the union that does not require metering, especially on commercial users and irrigators out in western Oklahoma,” Robert Jackman told me. “We have one weak law but folks on the OWRB tell me they can’t enforce it.”

Jackman is referring to the fact that the OWRB can only require meters on a groundwater well if the majority of landowners in a basin ask for it. This has never happened. Public water supply wells are metered, but this leaves most irrigators free to pump as much water as they can with no consequences.

And yet the state legislature recently passed the Water for 2060 Act, setting the goal of holding water use steady at current levels. At present, this is expected to happen on a voluntary basis. That seems hopeful.

“Voluntary conservation does work,” David Moon, editor of The Water Report, told me. But he didn’t think it was enough on its own. “Regulation is generally a necessary component—even if it is merely the “stick” used to make sure that everyone conserves. Particularly in drought situations, it doesn’t make sense to allow someone to flaunt their wasteful, unneeded water use if times are truly desperate: lawns, for example, must be sacrificed if water for drinking and bathing is needed.”

Times are not desperate in Oklahoma—yet. But population growth, aquifer depletions, drought, and the wild card of climate change all stoke a healthy fear of water scarcity. It may not be time to ban lawns, as Las Vegas has, or even restrict watering hours, as have many cities. But most growing cities that are holding water use steady have instituted at least some mandatory measures. And about half the nation’s water utilities now have a tiered payment system: the more water you use, the more you pay for it. Water for 2060 puts Oklahoma in the forward-thinking camp of water users. But at present, it’s not backed by action.


The final, perhaps most challenging, piece in the watershed management puzzle is giving everyone a voice in the process. New York grapples with this regularly.

“Grass roots support is key to making the watershed work,” Galusha told me. “There’s always a lot of conversation going on and always a lot of opportunities for people to say ‘you’re wrong.’ The dialogue has resulted in a fresher approach to problems.”

David Ocamb of the Sierra Club’s Okie chapter thinks that on this front, Oklahoma is moving in the right direction.

“The OWRB plan is a first step,” he told me. “And they are going to increase conservation. They were very supportive of Water for 2060.” In spite of some public grumbling about Water for 2060 killing growth, most people in a position to know feel the goal is highly attainable.

“Thegoodnewsis,wehavealotofroomtogrow,”Ocambsaid. “Wehave a lot of low-hanging fruit that we can grab. And you’re seeing the legislators acknowledging that there’s a problem and looking to find the solutions.”

In Oklahoma, as in New York, as everywhere, those solutions will be most effective if all parties have a role in forging them. For Oklahoma that will mean not only bringing Southeast residents into the dialogue, but also tribes, a process that arguably has begun with the mediation proceedings resulting from the Choctaw and Chickasaw nation’s lawsuit against the state. Even this step—mandated by a federal judge—is an acknowledgement that the city must allow other, less populous stakeholders to have a voice.

“The money is in the city,” Galusha told me. “But the actual resources to sustain life—water, food, even oil—are in the country. I see more and more enlightened thinking on the part of both.” She stopped to consider her words.

“Even though the resource division exists,” she said, “maybe the smart thinking about using that resource is where we will come together.”

This is the third installment of a three-part series about Oklahoma’s water wars, starting with the edition of This Land dated Sept. 1, 2012.

Troubled Waters, Part I: Oklahoma Water Wars

Troubled Waters, Part II: Urban vs. Rural