The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 13, 2013

State House panel delays vote on creating statewide emergency drought relief fund

Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — An Oklahoma House panel delayed a vote Wednesday on a proposal that would create a statewide emergency drought relief fund.

The House Appropriations and Budget Committee was scheduled Wednesday to look at a bill from Rep. Dale DeWitt, R-Braman, that would set up the fund.

The bill calls for at least $10 million to be available for relevant state agencies, at the discretion of the governor, in the event of a drought disaster. The proposal follows the worst drought in decades and several declarations of drought disasters across the Midwest, where exceptional drought persists in several states.

DeWitt said he and Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, introduced similar bills, and the two would be combined for consideration again next Wednesday.

“Rather than running the two bills through, we’re going to combine them,” DeWitt said. “It will be on the agenda next week, a week from today.”

He said the drought being felt across the state was one of the worst in memory.

“We’re in the middle of a drought right now and it’s as severe as I’ve ever seen. and I’m getting up there in years,” he said.

DeWitt noted others he’s spoken with can’t recall such severe drought conditions. He said the issue affects rural and urban Oklahomans.

“Everyone is suffering from the availability of water,” he said, “whether it’s for human use or livestock.”

Recently, Oklahoma City took advantage of its rights and requested 30,000 acre-feet of water from Canton Lake, to replenish its drinking water supply at Lake Hefner. DeWitt said the drawdown is “certainly a hardship” for those in Canton.

“We need to be able to figure out how to solve some of these water problems,” he said. “Water for livestock is becoming a real issue. We need to be able to clean our reservoirs and preserve that water in times like this.”

DeWitt said seed money would be needed to start the drought relief fund, which could be accessed during drought disasters and also provide some access to ailing rural water districts.

“I live in an area where rural water is all we have,” he said. “We have had to quit watering cattle for two summers now because there’s not enough water to go around. People have had to sell off their herds.

“It’s not just there, it’s all over the state,” he said.

Rainfall below normal levels for two years has keep aquifers, such as those that supply Enid’s water, from recharging.

“We have not had any recharge water from rains to build those aquifers up,” DeWitt said. “We’re losing a lot of depth from those aquifers.”

The representative said the issue is known by both Democrats and Republicans in the state, and he doesn’t believe it will be a problem getting the new bill passed.

“I don’t anticipate any problems,” DeWitt said. “I have not yet heard any complaints.”

News & Eagle staff writer Cass Rains and The Associated Press contributed to this story.