Oklahoma has set itself an ambitious goal to ensure the state has enough water to meet a growing demand 50 years from now. The premise is to use no more water in 2060 than it does today while maintaining economic growth.
The challenge of meeting those high aspirations includes an estimated one-third increase in water demand over 2012. Further complicating the effort is the ongoing drought that “is not expected to let up,” says Garey Fox, interim director, Oklahoma Water Resources Center, the center for water-related research, Extension and education in Oklahoma.
Fox offered a challenging outlook for the state’s water at the recent Rural Economic Outlook Conference on the Oklahoma State University Campus at Stillwater.
For the latest on southwest agriculture, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
Fox said the state’s 50-year water plan includes eight objectives: conservation, including reuse and recycling; monitoring to determine water levels; infrastructure financing; supply reliability; assessing nonconsumptive uses such as wildlife and environmental flow; regional planning; assessing excess or surplus water; and consultation with tribal and state leaders.
Possible actions could include determining ways to capture water during times of excessive rainfall. “We also need to know how much water we have,” he said. That’s why monitoring is an important aspect of the comprehensive plan.
The state’s water resources can be divided into four kinds—blue, green, grey and black. Blue includes rivers, lakes and groundwater. Green is water stored in the soil and available for plants and food production. Grey is wastewater from sinks, showers and baths “that can be recycled on-site, often for landscape irrigation.”
Black water is wastewater, which also can be reused with treatment. “We know how to treat water and get it back to drinkable,” Fox said.
Green water has been in limited supply because of the drought, which also limits recharging blue water sources. “We have much less blue and green water because of the drought,” he said. That loss has been an economic challenge to the state with an estimated $2 billion in losses from the 2011-2012 drought. Effects extend beyond agriculture into communities.
The drought also results in an increase in groundwater extraction, reservoir water use and reuse strategies. “Treat and reuse,” is an important option, Fox said. He expects to see more groundwater extracted for irrigation use as well.
A bellwether for drought impact is Lake Lugert, which supplies the Altus Irrigation District. That lake is currently at 9 percent capacity. The Ogallala aquifer is also diminishing.
And the drought continues. “In the 80s and 90s we had 20 years of wetter than normal conditions. Now, we are drier than normal and could be in another 20-year pattern.”
Fox said to reach the 2060 goal, the state needs to address drought mitigation, including irrigation research (drip and sprinkler systems). Also on the needs list is conservation for outdoor water use, sustainable groundwater extraction, and managed aquifer recharge. Economic and policy considerations are part of the mix as well. Education will be a key, Fox said.
He explained a concept called a “hydro-illogical cycle,” in which populations are apathetic about water resources until a drought comes along, which brings about awareness, then concern, then panic. With rainfall, they move back to apathy. “We need to start educating young people,” he said.
Oklahoma also must consider water infrastructure, which is aging. “Many of Oklahoma’s drinking and wastewater treatment facilities were built in the 1930s, and we have leakage in public water systems.”
Oklahoma also has more flood control dams than any other state in the country, 2,105 on 121 watersheds, providing flood protection for 2 million acres and $2 billion in infrastructure. “Millions of dollars are needed to rehabilitate these structures,” Fox said, “to prevent losses in distribution.” Determining sedimentation rates and rehabilitating those systems are also important concerns.
Water quality issues also merit attention. Sediment is a huge issue with “new sources” of sediment including ephemeral gullies and stream banks. “We need to keep sediment out of our water.” He says “legacy nutrients,” pose another concern. “Other water quality issues include disease organisms, bacteria, mercury, pesticides and harmful algal blooms.”
Other needs include expanding surface water quality monitoring and comprehensive groundwater quantity and quality monitoring. “Innovative non-point source pollution reduction and management strategies and economic evaluation of best management practices are also crucial.”
Environmental flow affects an important part of Oklahoma’s economy—recreation and tourism. Fox said the state must consider: “How much and when is blue water needed in streams? We need to manage reservoir releases to maintain environmental flows.”
He said these nonconsumptive water uses are more complex than consumptive ones. “We need environmental flow estimates for streams throughout Oklahoma. Evaluation of the economic benefits of tourism, recreation and environmental flows,” is another crucial need.
Agriculture will have to be a big part of the overall water plan. Irrigation accounts for 41 percent of Oklahoma’s fresh water use with about 75 percent of that coming from groundwater. Livestock and aquaculture account for another 12 percent of the state’s water demand. The public water supply takes 32 percent, with about 55 percent of that from surface water.
Fox expects expanded groundwater pumping and surface water use for irrigation. Reuse will be an important source of irrigation water as well.
“Under drought conditions, conflict between rural and urban users will occur. Regional planning and decision making will be important.”
Fox also noted that water laws in the state may be under scrutiny and questions if changes could be considered.
For agriculture, he says the goal has to be: “use as little as possible to maximize yield and profit.”