The Red River and the fight over water
Tom Lindley The Oklahomian
Water Battles in every corner of the state
The rain guage is on empty, Lake levels are falling and the wheat crop is in jeopardy.
Oklahomans were merely wrangling over water. Now they may have cause to go to war over it.
For the first time anyone can remember, the water level at Broken Bow Lake is at the point where nothing flows out the other end when the gates of the spillway are opened.
Farmers who a month ago were talking about rising energy costs have shifted their worried gaze to the escalating drought.
It's not likely, either, that a soaking rain will dampen emotions or wash away differences over whether the state has too much or too little water and how many lawsuits it will take to determine who owns the precious resource.
"These controversies are all governed by two basic rules of water," Oklahoma secretary of environment Miles Tolbert said. "One, they aren't making any more of it; and two, it's better to be upstream than down."
There isn't a section of the state today that's not dealing with a water crisis.
In northeastern and eastern Oklahoma, the debate is over what it will take to save the Illinois River, protect Grand Lake and reduce flooding on waterways controlled by the Grand River Dam Authority.
In central and southern Oklahoma, the growing thirst for water in Canadian and Pottawatomie counties has met resistance from nearby counties that don't think they have enough to spare.
In western Oklahoma there isn't enough water, period, particularly with the way the Ogallala Aquifer has been depleted.
Southwestern Oklahoma is the site of the newest conflict in the state, one that involves Red River chloride.
Monday, state and federal legislators and their staffs traveled to south-central Oklahoma to learn more about a proposed chloride control project on the Red River that has the potential to set cotton growers in southwestern Oklahoma against anglers, marina owners and others in south-central Oklahoma who make their living from the striped bass fishery in Lake Texoma
Cotton farmers want the salt removed so the water can be used for irrigation or drinking, but others are concerned the salt creates a unique habitat for salt-tolerant species such as the Red River pupfish and striped bass.
A study by the Army Corps of Engineers to determine the project's feasibility has taken on new meaning since it was suggested Texas might seek to divert some of the water from the Texas Panhandle before it flows into Oklahoma.
There always seems to be controversy along the Illinois River, where a game of chicken involving Attorney General Drew Edmondson and the city of Tulsa against poultry integrators and Arkansas politicians is being played out.
A few weeks ago, Arkansas waded into Oklahoma's efforts to control the phosphorus build-up in the river pollution from poultry operations on both sides of the border by filing suit against Oklahoma in the U.S. Supreme Court, escalating a dispute between Oklahoma and poultry operations to a showdown between two states.
The clock also is ticking on the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, where ranchers who own the water rights to millions of gallons beneath their land want to sell it.
Fearful the aquifer could be depleted faster than it recharges, downstream residents and towns that depend on it convinced the Oklahoma Legislature in 2003 to put a moratorium on the sale until a study could be completed.
At Grand Lake, there are growing concerns that the legacy of Tar Creek could end up polluting Oklahoma's favorite getaway spot unless the buildup of heavy metals seeping out of the ground from the abandoned mining operations near Picher can be checked.
Although rainfall for the year is more than a foot below normal in southeastern Oklahoma, it has not dried up speculation that one day a water pipeline to Texas will end up at the foot of the Little River.
Marcia Hodgson, who lives with her husband, Morris, on the banks of the Mountain Fork River, said she cried four years ago when she heard that then-Gov. Frank Keating's staff was negotiating to sell water to Texas.
"This place is nature at its best," she said. "We see eagles land across the river in the cypress trees and we see ducks, heron, beaver and otter."
The Hodgsons and others formed the Southern Oklahoma Water Alliance, which for the time being squelched water negotiations between Texas and Oklahoma.
Morris Hodgson said last week it's a good thing they did because this fall there isn't enough water flowing to feed a pipeline.
Now, the only thing rumbling down the river is the sound of a freight train as it crosses a bridge five miles upstream. But that doesn't mean the dispute won't resume when the rains return.
"These controversies underscore the importance of a comprehensive water plan," Tolbert said. "Without a careful, scientific look at each region's needs and resources, we will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis and we will continue to rely on short-term political fixes to water controversies, instead of long-term resolutions that respect everyone's interest."
That approach may not be easily accepted in a state where government action often is perceived to be interference and where all bets will be off if Oklahoma tribes are allowed to exercise their sovereign rights to adopt their own water regulations.
In the meantime, maybe the best thing to do is pray for rain.