By Warren Vieth
Everywhere you look, people are worked up about water.
The U.S. Supreme Court soon will rule on a water dispute between Oklahoma and Texas. The state is in mediation with American Indian tribes over southeast Oklahoma water. The entire state is suffering from a three-year drought despite recent rainfall and snowstorms. Lake levels have fallen and communities are imposing water rationing. People near Canton Lake are mad at Oklahoma City for draining the reservoir so Lake Hefner won’t dry up.
Many of these disputes wind up on the desktop of J.D. Strong, executive director of Oklahoma Water Resources Board. Last year, Strong’s agency drafted a new 50-year water plan. Among other things, it calls for an $82 billion program to upgrade the state’s drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure in the next five decades.
In an interview with Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth, Strong discussed the severity of the state’s current water crisis, the pending legal battles over water and the Canton Lake controversy. Although the state always will be vulnerable to drought-induced shortages, he explains what can be done to make their impact less dire.
A fifth-generation Oklahoman, Strong, 41, grew up in Weatherford and received his bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology from Oklahoma State University. He joined the Water Resources Board in 1993 as an environmental specialist and worked his way up to the director’s office.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Is the state of Oklahoma running out of water?
A: On average, no. But at the present time, we are having water stresses in certain areas of the state. We’re in the third year of an extended drought. Hopefully we’re at the end of it, but maybe we’re in the middle. Who knows?
When we look at average rainfall (and) average water availability, the state as a whole has more than enough water to take care of its needs. The problem is it’s never an average year in Oklahoma, and the water is hardly ever where we need it, when we need it.
Q: Is what we’re experiencing right now a crisis?
A: It is a crisis. Drought is a crisis that people don’t ever fully appreciate until it’s over. Because it doesn’t hit us like a tornado, a lot of folks don’t wake up to the fact that they’re in the midst of a crisis. But those of us who sit here and look at the deterioration of soil moisture and reservoir water availability and that sort of thing fully appreciate the fact that we’re in a crisis.
Q: Are Oklahomans in denial about climate change?
A: I don’t believe there is a consensus on that subject right now, at least not on man-induced climate change. People have different definitions of what climate change means. There’s a pretty good consensus that there are natural cycles to our climate that we’ve experienced since the beginning of time, and we’re in a time of dryness and drought right now.
When you go to the leap of “Is this man-induced climate change?” you see a lot of folks falling off that wagon pretty fast.
Q: Then is this simply a cyclical drought that at some point will end, and the rains will come?
A: Droughts always end at some point, and the rains will come. It’s going to take a lot more rain than what we’re seeing right now to end it. But we do expect this one to end just like all others.
The real question is when will it end, and when we look back, how will it compare to the worst drought on record, which is the mid-’50s drought, and the second-worst drought, the drought of the ’30s?
Q: Do the people who use Canton Lake for recreational purposes have a legitimate grievance about the lake being drained so people in Oklahoma City can continue watering their lawns?
A: It’s a legitimate concern. But it’s not just a concern with regard to Oklahoma City. The state as a whole and all of its citizens, including those up at Canton, can do a better job of conserving water and using it more efficiently.
We have enjoyed a number of decades of having plenty of water in our state. We’ve become a bit gluttonous about it as a society. There’s no better time than right now, in the midst of this drought, for people to think about the value of that water and how they could use it more efficiently.
Q: From a purely legal standpoint, is what Oklahoma City is doing right now fair and square?
A: Absolutely. They have water rights from the state and they have contractual storage rights from the (Army) Corps of Engineers, which owns that reservoir.
Q: Over time, has the state done enough to balance the needs of water consumers with those of recreational users?
A: We need to do something about that issue. Our statutes and our regulatory system are really set up to appropriate water for people, industries and cities to use for consumptive purposes. There’s really nothing specifically in our laws and regulations to make sure we’re taking care of the non-consumptive uses for water: the tourism, the recreation, the fishing, the endangered species, those sorts of things.
Q: What’s the status of the lawsuit between the state and the tribes?
A: We have stayed the litigation and are engaged in productive mediation right now. Hopefully, we’ll be able to resolve our issues through that process and avoid litigation altogether.
Q: Has the state been sensitive enough to the concerns of American Indians about water?
A: I’ve certainly heard the complaint that the state is not. I also hear that complaint about the state (not) being sensitive to anybody’s particular problems and needs. It really is a two-way street. In order for us to resolve these issues with all of the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, it’s going to take serious commitment and engagement on both the side of the state, as well as the tribes.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.