Fitzhugh water rights owner critical of state plan

Chuck Roberts operates an irrigation valve at his property near Fitzhugh Thursday, June 14, 2012.

Richard R. Barron
The Ada News

In hopes of protecting the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, state officials are considering a plan to reduce the amount of water that can be taken from the basin.

But area landowners worry that the proposed maximum annual yield for the aquifer would harm their ability to sell their water rights for public use.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) has proposed setting the aquifer’s maximum annual yield at 78,404 acre feet per year. Communities and individual landowners with water rights permits would receive an equal proportionate share of the groundwater, calculated at 0.2 acre feet — 2.4 inches — per ace per year.

The board has also recommended phasing in the proposed maximum annual yield (MAY) over five years.

The proposal is designed to extend the life of the aquifer, which underlies more than 500 square miles in south-central Oklahoma. The aquifer serves as the main source of drinking water for about 39,000 people in Ada, Sulphur and other communities.

The OWRB is expected to issue its final order setting the maximum annual yield later this summer.

In the past, the OWRB issued temporary permits allowing landowners to withdraw two acre feet of water per year from the aquifer, according to area landowner Chuck Roberts. But the board’s recommendation for a maximum annual yield would sharply limit the amount of water that can be taken from the aquifer each year.

Roberts’ land is in Fitzhugh, about seven miles southwest of Ada on the northern edge of the aquifer. He is watching the debate over the proposed MAY closely, as the outcome would affect his ability to sell his water rights.

If the OWRB sets equal proportionate shares at 0.2 acre feet, Roberts can sell his water rights to rural water districts or communities like Ada, he said in a May 24 interview. But he will not be able to sell them as much water as before.

“There’s not enough water to make it worthwhile,” he said.

Ada City Councilman Dick Scalf said the city supports the proposed MAY because it would protect Byrds Mill Spring, which supplies Ada’s drinking water. But he said the city will need to buy additional water rights to cover its groundwater pumping.

“But that’s the price we have to pay for protecting Byrds Mill Spring,” Scalf said in a June 8 interview.

Sound science?

The current fight over the aquifer began in 2003, when the Legislature barred the state from issuing temporary groundwater permits for municipal or public use outside the basin’s boundaries. The prohibition, included in Senate Bill 288, will continue until the OWRB approves a maximum annual yield that will protect the stream and springs linked to the aquifer.

The Legislature also directed the OWRB to undertake an extensive study of the aquifer, which formed the scientific basis for the board’s recommended maximum annual yield.

The board’s recommendation relied heavily on a report from the U.S. Geological Survey, which examined the possible impact of withdrawing water from the aquifer. 

The report focused on the aquifer’s eastern section rather than its central and western subdivisions.The Geological Survey’s work drew criticism during a hearing on the OWRB’s order, which took place May 15-16 in Sulphur. Attorneys challenging the order called an expert in groundwater modeling, who suggested the science behind the order was flawed. 

Supporters defended the science behind the order, saying it was based on the best information available.

Roberts, who attended the two-day hearing in Sulphur, said he endorses efforts to extend the life of the aquifer. But he wonders whether the board’s proposal was based on sound science.

“I want to protect the aquifer so it’s sustainable from now on,” he said. “And if that means I can only pump .2 acre feet, OK. But according to the expert witnesses at the hearing last week, .2 may not be correct.”

Councilman Scalf said the scientific basis for the order was sound.

“It was an excellent scientific study,” he said. “It was undoubtedly the most extensive study of any groundwater aquifer in the state.”

Five-year plan

Roberts said he was less concerned about the proposed MAY — and the science behind it — than about the board’s plan to implement it over five years. He said a five-year plan would violate Senate Bill 288 because it would allow the board to issue more water permits than the law authorizes.

He said he realizes that the state can’t implement the MAY immediately, but he thinks a shorter time frame would be best.

“I understand there’s got to be some time for permits to be issued, for contracts to be made and for funding to be secured,” he said. “But even J.D. Strong said in the meeting in Ada and at the hearing in Sulphur that the OWRB has no legal precedents for a phase-in. It’s never been done in any aquifer in Ada.”

Roberts was referring to OWRB’s executive director, who discussed a hydrology study for the aquifer during an August 2009 meeting in Ada. Strong also testified during last week’s hearing in Sulphur.

Selling water

Roberts said Ada officials favor a longer implementation schedule — perhaps as long as 20 years — which would give them time to prepare for a reduced share of the water in the aquifer. But he opposes a lengthy implementation plan because it would allow the city to take more than its fair share of the water.

“Any phase-in they get, they’re able to pump in more than their equal proportionate share, while myself and other landowners can only pump .2 acre feet while Ada pumps their share and part of my share,” he said. “And I have no place to sell my water.”

He said Ada has various options for solving its water problems, including tapping into the Oklahoma City pipeline or desalinating brine water. But those options would cost more than leasing groundwater rights.

Roberts said he is familiar with a group of landowners who are willing to lease water rights to Ada, which would secure an additional 25,000 acres of water at little cost to customers. But he said city officials refuse to discuss the matter.

“This is a real complicated issue with possibly a real simple solution,” he said. “All Ada has to do is negotiate a lease with the landowners, and their water problems are over.”

Scalf acknowledged that city officials would prefer a longer phase-in period, which would give the city more time to raise the money for buying additional water rights. 

“If we have to pass a bond issue or whatever we have to do, we have to get all of the information together and have an election and talk to everybody and convince the people that we need to do it, et cetera, et cetera,” he said. “Those things don’t just happen overnight.”

But he said the city would work with whatever the OWRB decides.

Scalf dismissed the argument that Ada would take advantage of a longer implementation schedule, saying the city would not take any more water than it already does.

Scalf confirmed that area landowners are offering to lease their water rights to Ada, and the city will consider the proposal. But he said leasing rights would not be in the city’s best interests.

“It’s a lot more expensive, and it doesn’t satisfy the long-term needs of the city,” he said.

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