- Ada, Oklahoma


February 5, 2014

Water law: the good, the bad, the potentially ugly

Ada — I believe most of us would agree that running out of water, whether as individuals or communities, would be a big problem. However it is not something we spend a lot of time worrying about. That might be part of the problem. Water is a renewable natural resource, but our ever-increasing population is beginning to create stress on water availability in many parts of the country. 

Historically, civilizations have used two solutions to manage or “allocate” water resources, government regulation or individual ownership. Traditionally both approaches are thought to be economically sound. Another way to say this is that both approaches will, if appropriately applied, lead to sustainable access to the water resource, and prevent its overuse and/or destruction. In Oklahoma, as with many western states, we have chosen a combination of the approaches, treating surface water as a state regulated and allocated public property, and ground water as individually owned private property right. For most of the States recent history these two legal frameworks have worked well together. This is good.

However, the current set laws do create a potential problem. To explain this we need to discuss a little hydrology.  In Oklahoma, our streams and rivers represent low points both in the local topography and in the water table.  The result is ground water discharges into the rivers and creates what are called influent, or gaining streams. So for most of the time during the year, the water we see in rivers and streams is primarily ground water that has discharged to the streambed. Not rain water or runoff.  This condition is called baseflow.  

The concept of baseflow is a very important lesson for those concerned with water management and has several important implications. One is that, a pumping well placed near the river can impact the flow of ground water into the river by altering the local water table (potentiometric surface), and can, if enough water is extracted, cause surface water to move from the river into the local surficial aquifer, creating a localized effluent or losing stream.  Conversely significant withdrawals from rivers could lower local water table and impact nearby wells.  Our water laws do not recognize these potential problems and leave no legal or regulatory recourse for impacted towns or individuals.  

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