What's typically nothing more than a facetious or rhetorical question somehow doesn't seem so whimsical these days as Oklahoma endures the worst bake-a-thon since the scorching summer of 1980, if not in history.
The oppressive heat and debilitating drought are combining to underscore the gravity of looming public policy choices about the state's most important natural resource: water.
Do we sell excess water to Texas? Do we have excess water to sell? If we sell, who gets the money?
What are the social and economic implications of transferring more water from oft-struggling rural Oklahoma to high-growth metro areas?
Is the Grand Lake algae scare a portent of water quality issues to come?
What can -- or should -- be done to share more plentiful eastern Oklahoma water with parched western Oklahoma?
Those questions, and many more, aren't the esoteric stuff of navel-gazing lab-coaters or pointy-headed academicians. These are questions that -- when answered -- will determine the world our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherit.
With more miles of shoreline than any other state, it's easy to take Oklahoma's water supply for granted. Turn on the faucet in most parts of the state and -- voila! -- abundant, clean water. It's a bounty that many others worldwide can only dream of.
Yet, as Oklahoma's elected leaders edge closer to developing long-term water policies, the weather -- as if on cue -- turns brutal, a nasty reminder of the abundance-drought cycle that demands we be careful stewards of an asset that is the 21st Century's equivalent of 20th Century oil.
The state's long-term water strategies mostly have been on hold for several years as lawmakers awaited completion of a roughly $15 million (state and federal dollars) comprehensive statewide water plan, expected to be released late this fall by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
The plan already is a political hot potato. Based on draft discussions and public meetings, critics contend the study is woefully short on science and embarrassingly long on speculation and political spin. Others suggest the critics are focused on narrow self-interest -- keeping their water for themselves -- rather than on meeting statewide needs.
I'm no hydrologist. I don't even drink as much water as health experts say I should. But I do know this: we better demand that science trumps politics when it comes to Oklahoma's future water policies or there could be hell to pay.
It's a no-brainer, right? Of course science should trump politics, especially when it comes to an issue as important as water. Unfortunately, clear-eyed, data-driven, dispassionate, verifiable research all too often is steamrolled in this state by politics, special interests and money.
There are big players (include the state's tribes) who'll scratch and claw to ensure they have a say in Oklahoma's water policies -- because the financial stakes are so high.
Selling water to North Texas, for example, could generate billions of dollars for ... someone. Ensuring Oklahoma City controls Sardis Lake could help guarantee the capital's unimpeded growth, ensuring huge profits for developers. Tightening water quality standards could significantly impact poultry operations, resort developments and tourism.
There is evidence that Oklahoma's political leaders recognize they better get this right. Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, and House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, recently appointed a joint legislative committee to examine the statewide water plan and launch the process of developing long-term water policies. The panel -- which includes such disparate legislative voices as Republican Sen. Brian Crain of Tulsa and Democratic Rep. Brian Renegar of McAlester -- doesn't appear to be stacked in favor of a particular special interest.
Of course, the threat looms that Oklahoma could be forced legally to make some decisions before the statewide water plan is fully vetted and the issues fully debated by the Legislature.
North Texas' Tarrant Regional Water District sued Oklahoma in federal court in an attempt to force the sale of water from three of the Sooner state's tributaries. A federal judge dismissed the suit, but the matter is on appeal in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
More than a few experts think North Texas has a good case because federal dollars were used to help create much of Oklahoma's abundant water infrastructure -- with the promise (check the congressional record) that it would be shared with our neighbors.
In the meantime, lake levels are dropping daily in much of the state. Some of southern Oklahoma's scenic rivers and streams are bone dry. Water rationing is common in cities and towns across the state. More than 150 wildfires have been reported. Outdoor burning is banned in most areas until further notice. High temperatures are shattering triple-digit records.
The situation is so dire that Gov. Mary Fallin recently urged Oklahomans to seek divine intervention, but the heat and drought persisted. And the state has ended up turning to the -- gasp! -- federal government for disaster assistance.
Isn't it more than a little ironic that in Fallin's first year as governor she's faced with such weather-related challenges -- the same Fallin who as a U.S. representative dismissed climate legislation as "entirely unnecessary" and signed the Americans For Prosperity "No Climate Tax" pledge?
Or that an algae outbreak threatened Grand Lake and other reservoirs and state officials urged Oklahomans not to eat fish from some waterways with excessive mercury levels -- in the same year Fallin criticized Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to enforce clean air and water laws opposed by the state's oil and gas industry?
Is somebody up there trying to tell us something?
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net
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