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New water advisory council to help state curb fresh water usage

Author: Graham Lee Brewer
Date: 10/29/2012

(eCap) House Bill 3055 will officially establish the Water 2060 Advisory Council, tasked with promoting and providing funding assistance to programs across the state that conserve water usage, when it takes effect Thursday. Part of what the council will do is award funding grants to cities, municipalities, and communities that are or have established programs to reuse or recycle their water, or create projects that find sources outside of available fresh water. The annual $50,000 in grants will be provided through existing funding from the Oklahoma Water Resource Board.

"There's a recommendation in the plan that the state should make reuse and recycling a priority, something you see in more western states, but hasn't been made a priority in Oklahoma," President of the OWRB J.D. Strong said. "Las Vegas is a perfect example. Few people would say Las Vegas has had any constrained growth. They do a lot of new and innovative things with the reuse and recycling of water. You've got everything from treated waste water flowing through the fountains in the Bellagio, to people being paid by the city to remove their yards."

There are some places in Oklahoma that are already moving in that direction. Gaillardia Country Club in northwest Oklahoma City uses treated waste water from Oklahoma City to irrigate its golf course. The process is considerably cheaper than purchasing potable water. The City of Guymon, which is located in the windswept, often parched flatlands of the Oklahoma panhandle, is also making moves to capitalize on the grants the legislation will make available.

"Our long term goal would be to clean the waste water and put it into Sunset Lake, which would augment the lake, and then from there pull it and put into an irrigation system for a park, golf course, or to feed a fountain," Guymon City Manager Ted Graham said.

Cities like Guymon are able to make progress on the reuse of water thanks to last year's passage of Senate Bill 1043. The bill allows towns to find ways to reintroduce treated water into existing bodies, whereas before it was restricted only to rivers that are fed by additional natural rivers and streams. But, as Ted Graham admits, one of the first necessary challenges will be getting the public on board through education.

"I truly believe that someday those of us who live in very arid places will be reusing our water as necessity," Graham said. "But, currently if you stand in a crowd and say I want to reuse your waste water and put it into your faucet they'd say, 'Excuse me?' But if you put it through a plant, retreat it, and bring it to a level that is safe to use and drink, they'd probably be okay with it."

Public education and promotion of water recycling and conservation is one aspect of what the newly established council will be doing. President of the Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer Amy Ford agrees with Graham when it comes to public opinion on reuse. But as she puts it, reuse makes practical sense.

"We're watering our yards with the same water we drink. Have you ever thought about that," Ford said.

She also agrees that the issue isn't just a cautionary step at this point; it is something that requires immediate attention.

"When you look at the drought, it's a pretty good canary in the mine situation." Ford continued. "There's an inordinate amount of loss in some of these older communities. I think the advisory council is going to entail a lot of municipal managers who are very familiar with water. The technologies out there are phenomenal. We've got to utilize them."

Another resource that may be tapped into by the council is brackish water, which has a slightly higher salt content than drinking water. The Central Oklahoma Water Resource Authority, made up of representatives for Yukon, Mustang, Okarche, Calumet, and Canadian County, is currently looking into extracting and desalinating their brackish water for consumer use.

Karl Stickley is Vice President of Guernsey Engineering, an engineering, architecture and consulting firm based out of Oklahoma City. Guernsey is currently in the process of negotiating a contract with COWRA on establishing a study into the possible desalination of brackish water underneath the Garber Wellington Aquifer.

"The first thing we proposed is a project evaluation," Stickley said. "That would be to look at the various kinds of water resources, permitting requirements, budget cost estimating, and then a development and implementation plan to go forward. Then, we would go to a pilot program and drill tests wells."

The council's ultimate goal is to use programs like these to keep the usage of fresh water across Oklahoma at the same levels through 2060.

"Even though it's an ambitious goal, we think it's achievable given the technology that is available." Oklahoma Speaker of the House and coauthor of HB 3055 Kris Steele said. "You've got to have water if you're going to grow."

The council may play an important role in the shaping of future water debates and interests, and it will most likely have to take on a very versatile approach in order to help get Oklahoma's water priorities established and dealt with accordingly. Steele is confident that the council will have a geographically diverse membership, allowing it to be representative of the water needs of all Oklahomans.

"We tried to be intentional in establishing this advisory council to make sure that all aspects of individuals who use water and how it utilized are represented. Recreational, industrial, agricultural, municipal, oil and gas, and, of course, consumer interests," Steele said. "It helps draw use together as a state and have a meaningful and intelligent discussion on what we can do collectively and work together to utilize our state's resources."

Shawn Lepard, a consultant working with COWRA on their possible extraction of brackish water, says that in order for us to start solving our water issues, such as the large pool of water in southeast Oklahoma and the lack thereof in the western part of the state, communities need to be looking into what they can do in their own backyards.

"Politically speaking, it's also easier to take water from underneath your own feet instead of someone else's," Lepard said. "I think it was Will Rogers who said whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, and that's come to be very true."

According to Lepard, The Department of Environmental Quality has recently made clear that they do not intend to honor the new rules concerning reintegration of treated water by the designated date of July 1, 2013 that people like Guymon City Manager Ted Graham plan to incorporate into their planned water recycling projects. It appears, for now, that the only thing that is as clear as the water coming from your tap is that the process and origin of it will continue be a hotly contested issue.

HB3055, by Steele and Sen. Eddie Fields, R-Wynona, creates the Water for 2060 Act. The bill states legislative intent to establish and work toward a goal of consuming no more fresh water in the year 2060 than is consumed statewide in the year 2012. The measure creates until Dec. 31, 2015, the 15-member Water for 2060 Advisory Council and specifies membership eligibility and duties of the council. It directs the council to submit a report of findings and recommendations to the House speaker, Senate president pro tempore and governor within three years following the effective date of the act. The bill also modifies language related to the Oklahoma Water Conservation Grant Program, allowing one or more rural water districts or portions of water districts to request grant funds. It also allows grant pilot projects to include those that promote efficiency, recycling and re-use of water. The measure also recodifies statutory language creating the Oklahoma Water Conservation Grant Program Act.