Legislator Wants to Talk About Water Sale
An Oklahoma state senator is taking a politically unpopular stance by saying his state should consider selling what he describes as "excess runoff water" to Texas if it will help raise money to pay for new roads, bridges and other projects in his district.
State Sen. Jeff Rabon, a Democrat from Hugo, said a proposal made by the Tarrant Regional Water District to buy water from Oklahoma before it flows into the Red River will not drain the state's lakes, empty its aquifers or leave its farmers high and dry, as critics have contended.
Although additional studies are needed, Rabon argues that refusing to even think about selling the water is irresponsible. The state has a moratorium on out-of-state water sales that the water district is challenging in federal court as unconstitutional.
"What is the problem in talking about it?" asked Rabon, who represents a southeastern Oklahoma district that includes one of the basins where the water district wants to get the water. "I've never understood the notion or mind-set that you don't talk about it. At the end of the day, when the study is done or the courts have wrangled, it may in fact not be a good public policy.
"But you don't get there without talking about it. I'm not afraid to keep it on the table for discussion," Rabon said.
Jim Oliver, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Water District, said the district has made progress with other Oklahoma lawmakers as well.
"When we've met with a number of elected officials they were cautiously positive on our deal but they do understand politically that it is a tough thing for them to get in front of," Oliver said.
He said the cities in southeastern Oklahoma need the money.
"The towns are sitting at reservoirs, but they can't afford the pump stations and stuff to get the water," he said.
Other Oklahoma lawmakers reject any suggestion of selling water to Texas until a new statewide water use study is completed, and environmental and economic groups are concerned about how the idea will affect the quality and quantity of water flowing into the Red River.
"Now that Oklahoma lakes are full and the drought is broken I hope we don't forget what kind of desperate problems we had when we were in a drought and make some rash decision," said state Rep. Mike Reynolds, a Republican from Oklahoma City.
Water into money
While getting water from Oklahoma for Fort Worth and Dallas is not a new idea, the Tarrant Regional Water District's recent proposal has so far met with little public support. Even Oklahoma state Sen. Jeff Rabon acknowledges that it's a "touchy subject."
Rabon, a Hugo Democrat whose district includes the Kiamichi River basin, one of the areas where the water district wants to collect water, is among a few legislators who have spoken out about studying selling the water to North Texas.
Oklahoma Water Resources estimates that 1.5 million to 1.7 million acre-feet of water, or 488.7 billion to 553.9 billion gallons, empties from the Kiamichi River every year, Rabon said. He said that is "four times the amount [of water] the entire state uses in a year, Oklahoma City and Tulsa included."
The money could be used to pay off a $68 million debt the state owes the Army Corps of Engineers for building Lake Sardis as well as bridges, roads and pipelines to carry water to communities in his district that can't afford them, he said.
"This part of the state needs the money," Rabon said. "I have done all I can to improve the economic well-being of the district, and just because it's uncomfortable I won't breach that responsibility" by not talking about turning a natural, replenishing resource that may be wasted, to a large degree, into a revenue stream.
Not so fast
Oklahoma state Rep. Jerry Ellis, chief sponsor of the moratorium blocking out-of-state water sales, said the majority of Oklahomans oppose the sale. He said Rabon is willing to talk about the idea because term limits prevent him from serving after 2008.
"He feels like he can do what he wants to, but my feeling is to do what the majority wants you to do," Ellis said.
Ellis echoes concerns from several groups that once water goes to Texas, it will be hard to get it back during a drought.
"When we're wet, you are too. When we need water, you need it too," said Ellis, a Democrat from Valliant. "We think the local people ought to be taken care of; there is no guarantee that they will be."
The water district applied for permits to capture water from the Cache Creek and Beaver Creek basins, near Lawton, and the Kiamichi River basin near McAlester. The district wants to divert about 7 percent of the water before it goes into the Red River and absorbs too much salt to be drinkable.
The Upper Trinity Regional Water District, which serves Collin, Dallas and Denton counties, also filed for a permit.
The Tarrant Regional Water District sued the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Water Conservation Storage Commission to keep the state from automatically dismissing or denying its permits while the matter is in court. The Tarrant water district contends that a state moratorium blocking out-of-state water sales violates federal law concerning interstate commerce.
The water district's research also indicates that when Oklahoma encouraged the federal government to build reservoirs there in the 1950s, the state encouraged the Corps of Engineers to consider the future demand for water from Fort Worth and Dallas.
"If they lose the lawsuit, it opens the door for us and others to apply for the run of the river and stored water and that is the risk they are facing," Oliver said.
Oklahoma wants the case dismissed, saying that no contract exists for selling the water, and since the moratorium applies only to contracts, there is no basis for the lawsuit. A letter from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission stating its concern about how the plan will affect water flowing into the Red River was also was entered into evidence.
U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton has not scheduled arguments.
By MAX B. BAKER
Star-Telegram staff writer
Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714