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Oklahoma works to keep the taps running

By Jennifer M. Latzke

The main goal for all Oklahoma water researchers and industry professionals is ensuring that when the taps are turned on, a clean and reliable water supply is available—for this generation and those to come.

The 34th annual Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference and Research Symposium brought researchers and professionals together Oct. 22 and 23 in Midwest City, Okla., to discuss the challenges of keeping the taps running today and in the future.

In his welcome to the conference, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb said water is the key issue that transcends urban and rural divides.

“I go to all 77 counties in the state every year,” Lamb said. “There are many parochial issues around the state that pertain to each individual region or county. But, there is one issue that is pervasive—clean water.

“Water is important to not only sustain life, but to also sustain our way of life,” he added. Tourism, oil and gas, and agriculture are three key industries where access to quality water is vital, he said. Lamb explained that in 2008 Oklahoma tourism accounted for $6.1 billion in direct traveler expenditures in the state. In 2011, Oklahoma agriculture accounted for $7 billion in farm receipts. The state’s oil and gas industry had brought in $11.3 billion in tax revenue for the previous 12 months as of August 2013.

“If access to quality water is eliminated because of poor stewardship, we cannot harvest anything because we can’t grow anything,” Lamb said. “If there is no water we can’t get hydrocarbons out of the ground and tourism dries up.”

One of the morning’s speakers was Veva Deheza, of the National Integrated Drought Information System. She spoke about the NIDIS, the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program at the University of Oklahoma, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Deheza discussed how these groups are all working to collect and share data that can help water resource managers, farmers, and others to plan around climate change and drought conditions.

Deheza talked about some of the anticipated climate changes for the Great Plains region. She said experts predict that it will become wetter in the northern plains and drier in the southern plains. Some of the volatility of climate change, she said, may manifest in higher evapotranspiration rates, more frequent and intense droughts, more severe rainfall events when they do occur, and more heat waves.

“What we see as a hot week will become a hot month,” Deheza said. “Oklahoma now sees an average of 7 days reaching over 100 degrees. That’s predicted to become 35 to 40 days by the mid century.” She said climatologists also predict the frost-free season will extend by about 24 days by the mid century, which could lead to more overwintering of pests, shorter grazing times on winter wheat and an epic effect on cattlemen.

All of this, Deheza said, will bring challenges to irrigators. With little to no recharge in parts of the aquifers, irrigating crops will be more costly to producers.

“In 2011, the drought impact to agriculture was about $12 billion in crop and livestock losses,” she said. “We now have the lowest cattle herd inventory in decades and record low water supplies. Also severe wildfires in New Mexico and Texas.”

NDIS, which is housed with National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, is tasked with helping create early warning systems for drought, collecting and integrating information on drought indicators and providing that information to forecasters and others. The website,, offers these resources and information to the public.

J.D. Strong, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board executive director, said drought is often called “The Sleeping Disaster” because its effects aren’t immediately felt. “Oklahoma is in a drought that is three or more years long,” Strong said. The OWRB is looking at projections for water demand for 50 years out, and considering surface and groundwater depletions the outlook is tough.

Considering the infrastructure needs in Oklahoma, the OWRB estimates that in the next 50 years there will need to be $82 billion in improvements to help future water users.

Michael Teague the Oklahoma State Secretary of Energy and the Environment spoke over the lunch hour about how future water users from various sectors will need to work together to find answers to water conservation and efficiency.

“There is a nexus between energy needs and the environment,” he began. “It’s difficult to find an energy issue that is not tied to the environment.

“We must have collaboration,” Teague emphasized. And when it comes to answers, there’s no one answer to fit all the needs of future Oklahomans, he said. For example, Teague said diversifying fuel resources includes using coal, wind, oil and natural gas and being smart about them in regards to balancing environmental needs.

Like meeting the energy challenge, Teague said there is no silver bullet to mitigating drought, but that all stakeholders must work together—agriculture, oil and gas, navigation systems, fish and wildlife and other sectors included.

Collaboration of ideas, collaboration of stakeholders and coming together with answers will be how Oklahomans will be able to meet the water demands of today and tomorrow, Teague said.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or

Date: 11/11/2013


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