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The Future of Oklahoma Water is Uncertain

Brett Fieldcamp

May 24, 2022

The Future of Oklahoma Water is Uncertain

ADA — About 12 miles south of Ada, down a country road and behind a locked gate on private land, is some of the cleanest, clearest water you’re likely to find in Oklahoma.

The water you can see isn’t much more than a pond. But this is actually the principal surface opening of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, a 500-plus-square-mile underground formation that serves as the primary source of drinking water for Ada, Durant, Tishomingo and at least six other towns.

The aquifer is sustained by rainwater, which seeps into the ground and collects in permeable rock formations. From there, it makes its way by gravity through 12 miles of piping systems to Ada, where it is lightly treated. The water is always available, always drinkable.

About 20 miles north of Ada is a very different scene. There, the Canadian River appears to be drying up. It is one of countless rivers, lakes, and reservoirs across America that are somewhere between nearly empty and entirely parched as drought, climate change and overuse deplete the nation’s water supply.

So why is the Arbuckle-Simpson overflowing when so much of the country appears to be losing the fight for conservation?

The answer leads down a well of history, lawsuits, research and pushback, starting with small-scale citizen groups and rising to the level of the U.S. Congress. The story of the Arbuckle-Simpson offers valuable insights into the state of the nation’s water supply and what might be done to preserve it.

Change won’t come easily, though. Agricultural interests that opposed tighter limits on Arbuckle-Simpson pumping in the past are certain to fight any effort to apply similar restrictions in other areas where looser limits are in place. They warn that stricter conservation efforts could curtail farming and diminish the nation’s food supply. In the meantime, the Legislature has never properly funded an ambitious 2012 blueprint for reducing water usage across the state. Heavy water users have resisted efforts to meter the actual amount of water they are consuming, a necessary step to ensure compliance with conservation goals.

“I just thought if you turn the water in your faucet on, you were good. I didn’t know where my water came from — until it was threatened.”

That’s Amy Anne Ford, president of Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, a group formed nearly 20 years ago to combat the growing threat that major farming and mining concerns could overtax the supplies of the Arbuckle-Simpson.

“I didn’t know anything about the Arbuckle at all, but I had a friend that said, ‘Hey, you should really come to this meeting because they’re going to dry up the Blue River,’” Ford said about a gathering that would lead to the establishment of her group in 2002.

When Ford said “they,” she was referring to farmers and farming companies that, throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, had been filing for pumping permits to pull water from the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer and the Blue River for irrigation all around the region and beyond, sometimes several counties away. So many permits were being issued that concern began growing over the long-term viability of the aquifer.

At the time, water use was regulated by loose limits based on projections of 20 years or more into the future — projections that took little account of exploding populations, and even less of climate change.

“Every single person in that room was angry,” Ford said of the meeting two decades later. “I think by the end of that first meeting, I was the treasurer.”

In partnership with the Chickasaw Nation, which has its headquarters in Ada, the CPASA began circulating petitions, filing official complaints and organizing protests to call for a halt on permit approvals and to demand a new study to determine the longevity of the aquifer and the impact of pumping.

As the activists started making noise, their efforts benefitted from concerned citizens who came before them.

All the way back in the 1980s, a much smaller group petitioned to have the Arbuckle-Simpson declared a sole-source aquifer, a designation made at the federal level if the Environmental Protection Agency determines there is no viable alternative source for drinking water in the area. They were successful, and to this day, the Arbuckle-Simpson is the only aquifer in the state protected as “sole-source.”

This designation would later provide the CPASA with firm, federal legal standing to argue that the Arbuckle-Simpson be treated as an exceptional case.

“God love those women in the ’80s that petitioned the EPA,” Ford said. “They just proactively did it and got it, and had it not been for that designation, we would have never gotten Senate Bill 288 passed.”

SB 288 was the culmination of CPASA’s efforts. Passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2003, it put a moratorium on new pumping permits for the Arbuckle-Simpson and greenlit a new official study by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to determine just how much water could be pumped from the aquifer without risking its viability in the future.

The study lasted from 2003 to March 2012, when the OWRB made its recommendations for new limits and restrictions.

The study found that yearly pumping limits should not rise, as farmers had hoped. Instead, it recommended that limits needed to be lowered dramatically.

Thus was born a new system of “maximum annual yield” for the Arbuckle-Simpson, which sets a cap each year on how much water can be used, in order to ensure, presumably indefinitely, a sustainable supply of clean water for the citizens of the area.

“That was a seismic shift in law in Oklahoma,” Ford explained.

Before SB 288, water-use forecasts across the state were historically done according to what Ford calls a “20-year horizon,” a loose, predictive overview of how much water was expected to be used in an area over a coming 20-year period according to growth and usage trends at the time. That method may have served conservation efforts for decades, but by the beginning of the new millennium, population and climate numbers were changing too quickly to effectively plan 20 years out.

The new, annually determined system would ensure that limits and use predictions could be newly set according to climate and population data, and the amount of water currently available in the aquifer, each year.

“We couldn’t do a 20-year horizon,” Ford said, “because in 20 years, we would have no water.”

Unsurprisingly, the new annual yield restrictions were seen as disastrous by farmers in the region and were worrying to agricultural concerns across the state. If these remarkably strict new conservation measures were to be adopted throughout Oklahoma, the entire practice of large-scale irrigation would have to be rethought, if not abandoned completely.

A statewide consortium of farmers, represented by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Legal Foundation, filed suit in 2013 against the new pumping limits, claiming they were arbitrary and not scientifically based. This set off a legal battle that would linger in the courts until 2018, when the Oklahoma Supreme Court finally refused to hear any further appeals, handing a decisive victory to the CPASA.

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