Lone Chimney Lake’s water level a year ago was low and falling.

Drought ultimately pushed the lake down 14 feet from normal, well below the intake for the Lone Chimney Water Association’s treatment plant. Even after rationing, the association needed a federal grant to buy a submersible pump to continue to draw water from the lake to supply its 16,500 customers.

“It was an ordeal. No one was prepared for it,” said Paul Kinder, the association’s operations manager. The treatment plant in Payne and Pawnee counties normally treats about 2 million gallons of drinking water a day.

Rain has since come. But memories of the drought are fresh.

Kinder said the association still plans to run a 12-inch pipeline to Stillwater’s raw water supply from Kaw Lake.

“That will supplement our lake level should we go through a drought again,” he said.

Such regional agreements are one issue on the minds of Oklahomans who are offering opinions and advice to those rewriting the state’s water plan. Other hot topics include where Oklahoma City gets its water, whether to strengthen laws that control groundwater and whether the state should sell water to Texas.

The plan, due in 2011, must show a way to tackle those issues, as well as the biggest water question in the state – how to account for a growing number of people who want and need water while managing uneven supplies.

Problem is Distribution

Mike Langston, assistant director of the Oklahoma Water Research Institute in Stillwater, said the state’s problem is not lack of water. It’s distribution.

“It’s getting the water to the right place at the right time,” said Langston, whose institute conducted more than 40 public meetings about the water plan throughout the state this year.

Supporters of regionalization say combining water districts helps address the distribution problem, since merged districts can provide more water at less cost.

The idea is not new. As communities grow and rural water districts age, repairs are needed, regulations tighten and resources are stretched.

Large neighbors sometimes step in and take over.

Yet some oppose the regionalization trend.

"The people who run these rural water districts frequently are afraid of losing control,” Langston said. “It’s that they do not necessarily trust the people in the big cities to be looking out for them.”

Distribution is also the crux of a water issue swirling around Oklahoma City. Those in the western part of the state have suggested pumping water from the east to Oklahoma City, which should then give up its claim to the Canadian River watershed. That watershed, Langston said, dictates how fast and in what direction western counties can grow.

The idea has some precedent. A similar plan floated in the 1980s was ultimately killed by the Legislature, according to Jeri Fleming, the water institute’s communications manager.

West vs. East

Differences between the two sides of the state are greater than discussion of how Oklahoma City gets its water. Groundwater is the major source for the western part of Oklahoma, while the eastern part of the state relies more on surface water in lakes, rivers and streams.

Yet the supplies are governed differently.

Groundwater is considered private property that belongs to landowners above it, although it is subject to some regulation. Surface water is considered a public good. The state directly controls its use.

Some at the public meetings have suggested that groundwater is more public than private, Langston said, and they raise concern that there is no control.

Yet limiting the use of groundwater raises other questions.

“You’re going to take that access away (from landowners) and not compensate them for it?” he said. “I’m not sure that that’s the way to go.”

It’s not the only dispute that water planners must face.

Another involves the Tarrant Regional Water District, in growing Fort Worth, Texas, which wants to get its hands on 150 billion gallons of water a year from Oklahoma’s Kiamichi River basin. Oklahoma City has its eye on the same water, as it flows through Sardis and Hugo lakes.

The Legislature banned selling water across state lines in 2001. The Tarrant district, in turn, filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn the moratorium.

Jim Oliver, the district’s general manager, said Tarrant wants to buy the water after it flows through Hugo and Sardis lakes, so it will not affect Oklahoma City. A pump would take water before the Kiamichi empties into the salty Red River.

“We think it’s a win for us and a win for Oklahoma,” he said.

Oliver said Tarrant would rather reach a deal than settle the issue in court. If Tarrant wins, he said, it essentially will get a permit to take the water for free. A contract, he said, would mean the district will pay Oklahoma for what he calls “surplus water.” An “Oklahoma-comes-first” clause would ensure the state has first priority over the supply, he said.

The state’s water plan must tackle the issue of cross-border sales, as well as broader concerns like regionalization, quality and supply and demand.

The Price of Water

Langston said the plan should also focus on how much people pay for water.

“We don’t price water based on the cost of water. We price water based on what it cost to treat the water and what it cost to deliver the water to our homes,” he said. “There is no actual money paid for the water. When it comes out of the ground, we assume it is just a free resource that comes out of the ground.”

Changing the way water is priced would likely raise how much people pay, he said, which would encourage conservation.

Langston noted the idea comes from his role as the water institute’s director, not as the coordinator of public meetings for the water plan. He is neutral in those discussions.

The meetings are the start of a process that will unfold over four years. In it environmental experts, state officials and political leaders pledge to size up Oklahoma’s water situation and ultimately find the balance between those places with plenty of water and areas where wells run dry.

Jon Kocan is a reporter for Stillwater (Okla.) NewsPress.

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