POSTED ON FEBRUARY 22, 2012:
Hands Across the Water
The wheeling and dealing of water rights takes a deft wrist
In her recent State of the State address, Gov. Mary Fallin lamented Oklahoma's looming federal court battle with the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations over water rights.
"We continue to hope this issue can be settled through mediation, without huge legal fees, and with all parties negotiating in good faith," she said.
"In the event, however, that the tribes do not share that goal, we intend to defend the water rights of all Oklahomans against a claim that favors one group over the interests of the entire state and all its citizens."
Routine carrot-and-stick rhetoric? Hardly. It was a classic political two-step.
Fallin wasn't defending the water rights of all Oklahomans. She and many elected state Republican leaders are -- pardon the pun -- carrying water for deep-pocketed Oklahoma City-based special interests, the kind that bankroll political careers.
This whole dust-up with the tribes is a result of Oklahoma City's thirst for control over southeastern Oklahoma's Sardis Lake.
The capital's big money interests and developers know that a sufficient water supply is key to ensuring central Oklahoma's growth -- and their profits from it.
It all but ignores the needs of southeastern Oklahoma, where the two tribes are headquartered and are now financial powerhouses in their own rights.
So, of course, the taxpayers will end up footing the state's portion of this mounting legal tab that could have been avoided if Oklahoma's approach to water management didn't more closely resemble a Three Stooges routine.
State leaders for years focused primarily on striking a deal to sell surplus water to North Texas -- the equivalent of the state treasury winning the biggest Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots every year, forever and ever, amen.
One question cooled the windfall fever: When considering its long-term needs and roller-coaster weather, does Oklahoma really have surplus water to sell?
State leaders did the smart thing, ordering up a comprehensive statewide water plan that was designed to give policy-makers the information necessary to determine what's in the state's best long-term interests.
Unfortunately, the $16 million analysis was a dud, victimized by back-room special interest gamesmanship that overrode science and common purpose.
No one at the Capitol wants to admit that, of course. It's especially difficult in these lean budget times to explain how a multi-million-dollar investment could produce the equivalent of a dry hole. Hence, House Speaker Kris Steele's praise of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board's "thorough job" in producing the statewide water blueprint.
To their credit, Steele and state lawmakers are taking some steps that could transform chicken litter into chicken salad.
It will take several years to develop the strategy, but Steele hopes a conservation and management plan can keep Oklahoma's fresh water consumption at current levels over the next half century.
If the state does nothing, he said, water use is expected to jump 33 percent in the 50-year period.
Lawmakers also appear intent of getting to the bottom of a question that should have been answered by the statewide water plan: How much useable water does Oklahoma have?
First, the state is woefully behind in monitoring its 87 groundwater basins, leading to "a shortage of accurate data to inform water management decisions," according to one recent House news release.
Second, Oklahoma hasn't systematically considered possible uses for brackish (high-salt content) water or so-called "gray" water -- described as water left over from routine activities like laundry, dishwashing and bathing that possibly could be used for watering flowerbeds or lawns.
The most daunting challenge for lawmakers? How to finance an estimated $82 billion in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 50 years.
Before you waste much energy feeling sorry for your elected policymakers, know this: It's a conundrum of their own making.
Republicans wrested control of state government away from Democrats by running against government -- vowing strict allegiance to Grover Norquist's goal of shrinking government to the size where the rest can be drowned in a bathtub.
It's not easy to ask the taxpayers to pony up more when you've spent the last three decades demagogically ranting against government overspending and waste.
Rep. Phil Richardson, R-Minco, conceded as much when he outlined proposed legislation that would establish 13 regional water planning groups as part of the overall strategy of effectively managing Oklahoma's water resources.
The knock on the proposed planning groups, he said, is that it's "growing government." You could almost see legislative Republicans shudder collectively. Richardson insists these groups won't cost taxpayers a dime, though there will be cost to assembling information the groups compile.
By late May, it will be clear whether legislative leaders are merely putting earrings on a pig or making substantial progress toward effectively managing the state's most critical resource.
Thanks to competing well-heeled special interests, it would have been a daunting task even if the comprehensive water plan had been all it could have been.
It's even more difficult now with all the state and federal court challenges -- not only involving the Chickasaws and Choctaws, but also North Texas interests.
As Steele put it, "We will not be deterred by litigation and will work aggressively this session to lay a foundation for Oklahoma's water future.
"As the elected officials of all Oklahomans, it is our duty to ensure each and every Oklahoman has the water they need."
Fallin, Steele and Co. need to remember that all means all. Not just their deep-pocketed benefactors in Oklahoma City. Not just the tribes. But all Oklahomans, whether in Boise City or Idabel, Miami or Hollis, Blackwell or Thackerville.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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