Eric Swanson Staff Writer email@example.com
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board imposed new limits Wednesday on the amount of water that can be taken out of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer each year.
The board voted 7-0 with two members abstaining to set the aquifer’s maximum annual yield at 78,404 acre feet. The order will allow communities and landowners who hold water permits to withdraw up to 0.20 acre feet of water — about 2.4 inches — per acre per year.
Now that the order is final, the OWRB will begin drafting rules concerning implementation of the MAY, well spacing and other issues.
People in the audience cheered and applauded the decision, and proponents of the MAY hugged each other after the meeting ended.
The grassroots organization Citizens for Protection of the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer hailed the decision as a victory in the fight over efforts to protect the aquifer.
“It means that my kids and my kids’ kids will have water in the future,” said CPASA member Shannon Shirley. “It means sustainability.”
Opponents of the decision said it would harm local ranchers and other landowners who rely on water from the aquifer.
“It took away my clients’ water and made their land a whole lot less valuable,” said James Barnett, attorney for the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer Protection Federation of Oklahoma. “It was a taking, an uncompensated taking by the state. The government took away their private property without giving them a nickel for it.”
Barnett’s organization represents landowners who oppose new limits on the amount of water that can be taken from the aquifer.
Protecting the aquifer
The Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, which lies underneath more than 500 square miles in south central Oklahoma, is the principal source of water for residents of Ada, Sulphur and other communities. The aquifer is also the source of several significant springs including Byrds Mill Spring, which is Ada’s main source of drinking water.
The federal government has designated the aquifer’s eastern zone as a sole source aquifer, a mechanism to protect drinking water supplies in areas with limited alternatives.
State officials began studying ways to protect the aquifer in 2003, when the Legislature directed the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the aquifer. Under Senate Bill 288, the state could not transfer water out of the aquifer for public use until the OWRB finished the study and set the maximum annual yield.
The study formed the basis for the MAY, which is supposed to preserve the natural flow of water from springs or streams within the aquifer basin. The OWRB issued a tentative order setting the MAY at 78,404 acre feet in 2012, then gathered evidence from supporters and opponents before issuing a final order this week.
Supporters of the MAY said Tuesday that the new restrictions would help preserve an important source of groundwater.
“The very existence and the economic viability of the city depends on the Arbuckle-Simpson,” said Craig Shew, an attorney representing the city of Ada. “Unlike the commercial interests who can simply move on once the aquifer is depleted, the city and all the other residents who use Arbuckle-Simpson water — the other 120,000 — don’t really have that option available. In fact, the options if it becomes depleted are very few, and those few that exist are extraordinarily expensive.”
Ada will need to acquire an additional 29,000 acres of water rights because the new limits will reduce the amount of groundwater that can be taken from the aquifer, Shew said. He urged the board to phase in implementation over several years, which would give the city time to buy additional water rights.
OWRB member Richard Sevenoaks asked, “How long do you need?”
Shew replied, “Ten years.”
Challenging the numbers
Critics challenged the board’s decision to cap the amount of groundwater that permit holders can take out of the aquifer each year — a number known as the equal proportionate share.
Previous regulations allowed permit holders to withdraw 2 acre feet of water from the aquifer each year, said Mark Walker, an attorney who represents several organizations opposed to the new limits. He said the OWRB’s order, which cuts that number to 0.20 acre feet per acre per year, equals a 90 percent reduction in the right to use groundwater.
Walker complained that the OWRB failed to explain why it settled on 0.20 acre feet as the new limit.
“Nowhere in the order does it say, ‘We’re finding .2 acre feet is the right number because of this,’” he said.
James Barnett with the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer Protection Federation said the order will force individual landowners to give up the rights to their groundwater.
“We believe that that’s just fundamentally unfair,” he said.