Lake Hefner is a primary source of drinking water for Oklahoma City. A state board is assessing the state's water supply to meet future demand. (Photo by Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)
Oklahoma officials are seeking input from residents about their top water concerns as a state board begins to craft a plan to ensure enough water is available for the next 50 years.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which is tasked with predicting supply and demand, is updating its comprehensive plan.
The Legislature appropriated $3.5 million for the updates, which needs to be done every 10 years. The plan informs lawmakers on how much water is legally available and expected demand.
The board is paying for numerous studies to forecast water supply through 2075, but it also wants to assess the condition of water infrastructure across the state.
The planning process includes public comment to identify challenges and develop solutions that plays an important role in shaping the plan updates, said Owen Mills, the board’s water planning director.
“They help us come up with local solutions to local problems,” he said.
Cities face steep challenges to fix aging drinking and wastewater systems due to low revenue, and there are fewer trained and experienced workers to operate those systems as federal regulations become more stringent, Mills said.
Water departments are funded by customer fees, but Mills said the rates in many towns haven’t kept up with maintenance costs. In some cases, town officials brag that they haven’t raised rates in 20 years, but that also means those towns are strapped for cash for maintenance and improvements.
“That’s a mistake,” Mills said. “That’s not a good business plan.”
Rates often don’t increase because elected city officials fear backlash at the polls, but also because doubling or tripling the water rate in impoverished communities “is impractical in many cases,” he said.
To offset costs, the board offers an average of $1.2 million annually in state-funded grants, but it’s “a drop in the bucket” compared to the cost of line replacements and multi-million capital improvements like new wastewater plants, Mills said.
“Grants buy them a new truck or helps them pay for a new backhoe, but that’s what a $100,000 grant does,” he said. “Small grants are available but they’re just band-aids. They don’t fix big problems.”
Water supply is also an important aspect of the state’s water plan. Mills said farmers in western Oklahoma, especially in the Panhandle, are worried. Wells are fed by the Ogallala Aquifer but its levels are falling every year as farmers use more water during droughts.
“Some of them (farmers) are looking at selling out farms in some cases,” Mills said.
With more public feedback and ongoing studies with experts, the board hopes to find innovative solutions to serious challenges, he said.
Meetings slated in December will analyze previous public input, but additional sessions will continue through next summer. The water plan update is set to be completed by late 2024 and presented to the Legislature by early 2025.
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