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State House

October 27, 2010

Officials: Education needed to advance water issues

Speakers argue informing the public is necessary for developing policies

OKLAHOMA CITY — Money, political will and education are needed to develop Oklahoma’s longterm water policies, officials and water advocates said Tuesday.

Hundreds of state workers, environmentalist and concerned residents attended the opening day of the annual Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference in Norman. The core message of the event’s first day: More focus should be put on explaining why protecting the quality and availability of the state’s water supply is so important.

“Most people know next to nothing about their water,” said author and National Public Radio contributor Scott Huler, who was the keynote speaker for Tuesday’s sessions. “Water is one of those things that is fundamental. We need to recognize it is wrong to not understand how it works. For ourselves, our children and our planet, we need to understand it.”

Hutler recently wrote the book, “On the Grid,” that explains the history, uses and impact of infrastructure systems. He said state and municipal water projects and policies play an understated role in providing residents basic, but essential, resources.

Chickasha farmer Jay Fulton was among the many community members who attended the conference. He said his livelihood, like that of many others in the agricultural field, depends on a stable source of water.

“If there is no water, we are gone,” he said. “We are always concerned personally about our crops and cattle.”

The state is entering the final stages of developing its Comprehensive Water Plan that began in 2006. The study will create recommendations that are intended to guide policies for the next 50 years.

Oklahoma Secretary of Environment J.D. Strong, who recently also was named executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said a draft of the water plan should be available next year. The next governor and legislature then will be tasked with considering reforms and new policies relating to selling water rights, protecting water quality and ensuring each region of the state meets its different water demands.

Strong provided an early glimpse Tuesday of some of the study’s finding. He said currently the Panhandle and central Oklahoma regions have the highest demand for water. Other regions, such as northeastern Oklahoma near Tulsa, are projected to see a significant increase in their water needs during the next few decades.

Hennessey resident Jean Anne Casey, like Fulton, has been active in the citizen input portion of the water plan, which featured dozens of town hall meetings throughout the state in the past years. Casey, who runs an orchard on her land, said she wants the state to see the dangers of ignoring water quality issues.

“I became interested in water partly because we’ve begun to see all the pollution that is out there, like from the hog industry now out in the Panhandle,” she said. “We are starting to see what happens if groups like the (United States Department of Agriculture) doesn’t regulate things.”

Fulton said he hopes the comprehensive water plan will force the state to look at the short and longterm future. After operating Fulton Farms for the past 50 years, he said he wants his farm to stay in his family and for there to be available water for the farm’s irrigation system for the next five decades as well.

Hutler said realizing how much people rely on water – through agricultural needs, basic municipal water supply uses or a number of other applications – is important to establish the political will to fund and protect the water supply.

“We have to decide to pay and that is the political will,” he said. “Taxes are in fact just our way of saying what is important to our community. Infrastructure is our community.”

Norman Mayor Cindy Rosenthal, who opened the conference, noted that her city has not raised its water fee rates since 2006 and voters this year rejected a proposed increase. She said the city, like many others, has explored new techniques and innovations to meet residents’ water needs with their limited resources. She added working together with the state would be critical to meeting the city’s longterm demands.

“The future of the state depends on the decisions we will be considering together,” she said. “And the time to work together is now.”

 

Trevor Brown covers the Oklahoma statehouse for CNHI. He can be reached at tbrown@cnhi.com.

 

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