Water trust members taken by surprise
By Traci Chapman and Ray Dyer
Word that the Oklahoma Water Resources Board is launching a “comprehensive” study of a water basin that stretches from Yukon to Watonga came as a surprise to members of the Canadian County authority that has been searching for a water source.
Central Oklahoma Water Resources Authority, COWRA, has been working for years to find a “secure” water source for the area. The driving force behind the effort is the desire of communities to wean themselves of water dependence from Oklahoma City.
But the news that OWRB is jumping into the search for new water sources was described by one COWRA member as a “significant development,” a development several officials said they knew nothing about.
Canadian County District 2 Commissioner David Anderson was one of several members of the county authority who said they were not aware of OWRB’s intentions. COWRA has been following the lead of Oklahoma City lobbyist Shawn Lepard, who has helped guide the water expedition for several years.
It was COWRA’s payment to Lepard that caused El Reno Mayor Matt White to lead the effort to pull the town away from the COWRA table a few years ago. Two years ago, that decision was reversed by a new council that agreed to pay “back dues” of more than $100,000 to reactivate El Reno’s COWRA voting rights.
At the time El Reno left COWRA, Lepard was being paid about $90,000 per year. COWRA’s entire budget was less than $100,000. The money now paid to Lepard by the authority has been trimmed to under $50,000.
Recently, COWRA has been seeking a contractor to drill test wells between El Reno, Union City and Mustang in an effort to find a source for brackish water. The firm hired to help lead that effort, Guernsey Engineering, has been unable to find a drilling firm that will do the test wells at the cost it estimated.
“Our engineers gave us an estimate of the cost to drill the wells and the bids that came back were over half more than what they expected,” Anderson said.
El Reno City Manager Tony Rivera said he too was caught off guard by the OWRB announcement. In an email, Rivera said he was forwarding the inquiry to Lepard to “see if he knows anything.” Mustang City Manager Tim Rooney said Thursday afternoon he also did not know about the OWRB study until fellow COWRA members forwarded a press release concerning it to him. The press release was issued that same day. COWRA authority members received the release from El Reno Tribune and Mustang News reporters.
Lepard said he had been working with the state water board since 2010 and he is “glad to have their support. It’s awesome,” Lepard said. Even so, he said COWRA would continue to work on its own to find a secure water source for the county. He said the county should not look to the state to do for it what “it should be doing for itself.”
“Of course, we don’t want to go back to the Arbuckle days, when we were actually working against the state,” Lepard said, referring to the failed plan to build a pipeline and pull water from the southern Oklahoma water basin that exists in the Tishomingo area.
Cole Perryman, OWRB director of communications, said Thursday 12 “Hot Spot” basins were identified in a 2012 update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan. Those areas were identified as having the “most significant” issues pertaining to water supplies expected over the next 50 years.
Basin 51 is located between Yukon and Watonga and runs through El Reno. It will be used to study “marginal” water to prevent shortages in the future, Perryman said. Officials classify “marginal water” as treated or reclaimed wastewater, oil and gas flowback, brackish water, stormwater and sources tested with “elevated levels of key constituents,” Perryman said.
“Basin 51 was found to have a high potential, according to what we’ve seen so far,” he said.
The basin was pinpointed during several public meetings held during spring 2014. The OWRB representative said he was not certain if COWRA officials had attended any of the public meetings. Lepard said a meeting was held in Yukon and was “I believe lightly attended.” He said he did not attend, but “I believe Richard Raupe attended.” Raupe, mayor of Okarche, is the chairman of COWRA.
OWRB Executive Director J.D. Strong said the meetings generated a lot of interest. He said he did believe representatives from COWRA were there.
“We had strong attendance at each of our Hot Spot public meetings earlier this spring and that has assisted the advisory council in its mission,” he said. “The public meetings brought together agriculture producers, water providers and interested citizens residing in the state’s 12 Hot Spot planning basins.”
None of the COWRA board members contacted said they knew about the meetings or had been given a report about them by fellow board members or Lepard.
Lepard said he planned to update the COWRA board at a meeting set for Friday in Yukon.
“I was planning to discuss this with them at tomorrow’s meeting,” Lepard said. He said he was unaware OWRB was planning to issue the press release about its plans.
Both the studies and meetings evolved from the Water for 2060 initiative, an offshoot of the Water for 2060 Act approved by the Legislature in 2012. The initiative set a statewide goal to limit water consumption in 2060 to 2012 usage levels. The Water for 2060 Advisory Council will issue a final report to state officials sometime in late 2015, Perryman said.
“The OWRB is doing this in conjunction with the federal government, which is providing some funding,” he said. “OWRB is providing in-kind payment through the services of its employees.”
OWRB and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were partnering to support the advisory council, Perryman said.
In addition to the Yukon to Watonga study, two other areas will also be studied, one near Duncan, the other near Altus.
Rivera later said it was most likely Lepard who helped get the Yukon to Watonga area included in the OWRB study. He added, however, that he was “peeved” that he or other members of the COWRA board were not told of the OWRB developments.
District 3 Commissioner Jack Stewart said he too was unaware of the OWRB plan or the public meetings, one of which, in Yukon, was in his district.
Strong, who lives in Yukon, phoned from a meeting in Minnesota to say COWRA should continue its independent search for a water source. He said OWRB could help finance the estimated $60 to $100 million project if it materializes.
“We did a $70 million-dollar project for Broken Arrow last year, so we certainly have the ability to help finance large projects.”