ADA — About 12 miles south of Ada, down a country road and behind a locked gate on private land, is some of the cleanest, clearest water you’re likely to find in Oklahoma.
The water you can see isn’t much more than a pond. But this is actually the principal surface opening of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, a 500-plus-square-mile underground formation that serves as the primary source of drinking water for Ada, Durant, Tishomingo and at least six other towns.
The aquifer is sustained by rainwater, which seeps into the ground and collects in permeable rock formations. From there, it makes its way by gravity through 12 miles of piping systems to Ada, where it is lightly treated. The water is always available, always drinkable.
About 20 miles north of Ada is a very different scene. There, the Canadian River appears to be drying up. It is one of countless rivers, lakes, and reservoirs across America that are somewhere between nearly empty and entirely parched as drought, climate change and overuse deplete the nation’s water supply.
So why is the Arbuckle-Simpson overflowing when so much of the country appears to be losing the fight for conservation?
The answer leads down a well of history, lawsuits, research and pushback, starting with small-scale citizen groups and rising to the level of the U.S. Congress. The story of the Arbuckle-Simpson offers valuable insights into the state of the nation’s water supply and what might be done to preserve it.
Change won’t come easily, though. Agricultural interests that opposed tighter limits on Arbuckle-Simpson pumping in the past are certain to fight any effort to apply similar restrictions in other areas where looser limits are in place. They warn that stricter conservation efforts could curtail farming and diminish the nation’s food supply. In the meantime, the Legislature has never properly funded an ambitious 2012 blueprint for reducing water usage across the state. Heavy water users have resisted efforts to meter the actual amount of water they are consuming, a necessary step to ensure compliance with conservation goals.
A well of history
“I just thought if you turn the water in your faucet on, you were good. I didn’t know where my water came from — until it was threatened.”
That’s Amy Anne Ford, president of Citizens for the Protection of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, a group formed nearly 20 years ago to combat the growing threat that major farming and mining concerns could overtax the supplies of the Arbuckle-Simpson.
“I didn’t know anything about the Arbuckle at all, but I had a friend that said, ‘Hey, you should really come to this meeting because they’re going to dry up the Blue River,’” Ford said about a gathering that would lead to the establishment of her group in 2002.
When Ford said “they,” she was referring to farmers and farming companies that, throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, had been filing for pumping permits to pull water from the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer and the Blue River for irrigation all around the region and beyond, sometimes several counties away. So many permits were being issued that concern began growing over the long-term viability of the aquifer.
At the time, water use was regulated by loose limits based on projections of 20 years or more into the future — projections that took little account of exploding populations, and even less of climate change.
“Every single person in that room was angry,” Ford said of the meeting two decades later. “I think by the end of that first meeting, I was the treasurer.”
In partnership with the Chickasaw Nation, which has its headquarters in Ada, the CPASA began circulating petitions, filing official complaints and organizing protests to call for a halt on permit approvals and to demand a new study to determine the longevity of the aquifer and the impact of pumping.
As the activists started making noise, their efforts benefitted from concerned citizens who came before them.
All the way back in the 1980s, a much smaller group petitioned to have the Arbuckle-Simpson declared a sole-source aquifer, a designation made at the federal level if the Environmental Protection Agency determines there is no viable alternative source for drinking water in the area. They were successful, and to this day, the Arbuckle-Simpson is the only aquifer in the state protected as “sole-source.”
This designation would later provide the CPASA with firm, federal legal standing to argue that the Arbuckle-Simpson be treated as an exceptional case.
“God love those women in the ’80s that petitioned the EPA,” Ford said. “They just proactively did it and got it, and had it not been for that designation, we would have never gotten Senate Bill 288 passed.”
SB 288 was the culmination of CPASA’s efforts. Passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2003, it put a moratorium on new pumping permits for the Arbuckle-Simpson and greenlit a new official study by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to determine just how much water could be pumped from the aquifer without risking its viability in the future.
The study lasted from 2003 to March 2012, when the OWRB made its recommendations for new limits and restrictions.
The study found that yearly pumping limits should not rise, as farmers had hoped. Instead, it recommended that limits needed to be lowered dramatically.
Thus was born a new system of “maximum annual yield” for the Arbuckle-Simpson, which sets a cap each year on how much water can be used, in order to ensure, presumably indefinitely, a sustainable supply of clean water for the citizens of the area.
“That was a seismic shift in law in Oklahoma,” Ford explained.
Before SB 288, water-use forecasts across the state were historically done according to what Ford calls a “20-year horizon,” a loose, predictive overview of how much water was expected to be used in an area over a coming 20-year period according to growth and usage trends at the time. That method may have served conservation efforts for decades, but by the beginning of the new millennium, population and climate numbers were changing too quickly to effectively plan 20 years out.
The new, annually determined system would ensure that limits and use predictions could be newly set according to climate and population data, and the amount of water currently available in the aquifer, each year.
“We couldn’t do a 20-year horizon,” Ford said, “because in 20 years, we would have no water.”
Unsurprisingly, the new annual yield restrictions were seen as disastrous by farmers in the region and were worrying to agricultural concerns across the state. If these remarkably strict new conservation measures were to be adopted throughout Oklahoma, the entire practice of large-scale irrigation would have to be rethought, if not abandoned completely.
A statewide consortium of farmers, represented by the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Legal Foundation, filed suit in 2013 against the new pumping limits, claiming they were arbitrary and not scientifically based. This set off a legal battle that would linger in the courts until 2018, when the Oklahoma Supreme Court finally refused to hear any further appeals, handing a decisive victory to the CPASA.
‘A big concern for farmers’
“When they put those limits on pumping and water use, a lot of folks viewed that as a taking-away,” said Rodd Moesel, president of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. “It created a big concern for farmers.”
Moesel, who has led the Farm Bureau since 2017, recalled the frustration and concern among Oklahoma’s farmers when the pumping limits were first put in place.
“The way it really felt to the farming community was that this was someone that doesn’t know their business coming in to tell them how to do it without understanding any of it,” he said.
But doesn’t something have to be done to curb or slow water usage? What about climate change and the toll it has taken on temperatures and rainfall?
“Talk to your grandparents,” Moesel said. “They dealt with way worse droughts years ago.”
He has a point. Even a quick look at historical drought and rainfall data for the state shows plenty of times in the past, particularly a period between 1950 and 1960, when Oklahoma experienced conditions from “abnormally dry” to “extremely dry” at rates even higher than in recent years.
However, this comparison doesn’t take into account that 1.5 million more people live in Oklahoma now compared to 1960, and the water demands of an exploding population can dramatically worsen drought effects, even in comparably “wetter” years.
Moesel suggested that the increasing population might be accommodated through technological advancements in the recharge and distribution of water across Oklahoma.
“There has been lots of improvement in water distribution in our state,” he said. “And it’s still steadily improving now.”
Moesel deflected questions about whether the Farm Bureau might continue efforts to get pumping limits raised in court, but he did offer one bit of blunt commentary on the overall situation.
“If these restrictions continue or increase, then it will dictate eventually what food is grown where,” he said. “People rely on the food from farmers, and, ultimately, we might have to choose between water or food.”
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Maintaining a delicate balance
Many of the technological improvements to which Moesel referred are the result of extensive research being carried out on and around the Arbuckle-Simpson, particularly efforts by the City of Ada and the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center, an EPA-funded lab focused on groundwater and soil studies.
The center investigates Enhanced Aquifer Recharge, or E.A.R, which comprises a number of connected efforts to identify the best and most natural ways to increase the amount of water stored in the Arbuckle-Simpson. Researchers are investigating all sorts of possibilities, such as collection technology to gather more rainwater, or using laser imaging to map and identify wells, openings, and tributaries that naturally gather water and empty it into the aquifer.
This information all hinges on understanding the relationship between surface water and groundwater and defining the nebulous difference between them.
“A lot of aquifers have kind of gotten away from us because they’ve been over-pumped and over-utilized, and it takes a long time to recharge,” said Susan Paddack, a former state senator who served as executive director of the Oka’ Institute at East Central University until last year.
Named after the Chickasaw word for “water,” the institute is a research foundation dedicated to developing new approaches to water conservation in and around the Arbuckle-Simpson.
“The interesting thing about the Arbuckle is that it’s the only place in the state where ‘conjunctive use’ is recognized, which is the science and interaction between groundwater and surface water,” Paddack said in an interview prior to leaving the institute. “Groundwater is individual property rights, and surface water is property of the state, but there is an interaction between those two.”
In most places around Oklahoma, surface water and groundwater are governed by separate laws, even though the designations feed into each other and frequently co-mingle. Conjunctive use recognizes this co-mingling, and understanding the relationship between groundwater and surface water is one of the main goals for the Oka’ Institute’s research.
It also represents a major hurdle in understanding how best to recharge the state’s aquifers. Recharge water that is captured and stored as surface water would become state property, subject to the Water Resources Board and its permitting regulations, allowing it to be better monitored and conserved. Recharge water that heads deeper under the surface and becomes groundwater, however, would then become property of landowners, who would be allowed to use as much as they pleased for “domestic use” such as irrigation and livestock, with little or no permitting or monitoring required.
“A lot of the country already does acknowledge that they’re connected,” said Owen Mills, Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s director of water planning. “So that makes it easier to manage that kind of thing. There are a lot of states, I know, that are certainly ahead of us in their aquifer studies and their understanding of their own groundwater.”
All of these endeavors (the many E.A.R. projects, the establishment of the Oka’ Institute, the 2018 court ruling in favor of stricter pumping limits) are related to a sweeping statewide effort to significantly reduce annual water usage, with a goal of using no more water in the year 2060 than was used in 2012.
This objective was established by HB 3055, the “Water for 2060 Act.” Passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2012, it made Oklahoma the nation’s first state to commit to such a goal.
Among other things, the act established an advisory council, which published a 20-page report in 2015. The report lays out general recommendations for how to educate both the public and water-dependent industries on how to better conserve water. It also establishes certain recommended thresholds for statewide water use based on projections for every five-year period until 2060.
So how effective has the Water for 2060 Act been at curbing the state’s water use?
According to Mills, it’s practically impossible to tell.
“Long story short, none of it ever got funded,” he explained. “We were pretty disappointed. We thought some of that, at least, would get some kind of funding from the State Legislature, because it was their act. They wrote it. We were hoping it would get funded, and it didn’t. Nothing got funded.”
The lack of funding and legislative attention has meant that, while useful in theory, the guidelines, programs and annual thresholds proposed in the Water for 2060 Act have become largely meaningless and forgotten, especially as no large-scale measuring or reporting is actually done on the amount of water used statewide.
“In Oklahoma, we don’t do that, and the Water Board sure doesn’t push for it,” Mills clarified. “It’s just too controversial.”
This, it turns out, is one of the hottest and most debated issues among farmers, conservationists, researchers, and legislators where water is concerned. Many other states require strict reporting and “metering” of any water used for agricultural and commercial purposes — and, in some cases, domestic use as well — but Oklahomans, particularly the farming industry, have vehemently opposed any efforts to require metering of water use.
“Someday, that may change,” Mills said. “We put it in our recommendations back then that it might be a good idea to start metering, but we’re not going to push for it. That’s above our pay grade. But if the governor or the Legislature decided that’s something they want, then it may happen someday.”
For now, with no clear way to monitor statewide water usage, and no direct funding for implementing the proposals in the report, Mills says the Water for 2060 Act has simply become a roadmap of sorts, a set of general guidelines for ways that Oklahoma hypothetically could curb water use.
Moreover, for all of the victories of the CPASA and the recommendations of the OWRB, there are still more direct battles to fight.
“The mining industry is our latest challenge,” Amy Ford said of CPASA’s most recent activities, including court filings against the OK Department of Mines. “There’s a special provision in the law that goes all the way back to the beginning of Oklahoma that was basically designed around the coal mines that says that if you encounter water [while excavating for mining] that you can remove it without needing a permit,” she said. “They have to remove the water to be able to continue mining for rock and gravel, and that is never accounted for.”
According to the CPASA’s own research and monitoring, the amount of water being removed by mining operations is much greater than expected, whether that water is discarded to flow back into the aquifers or is disposed of in injection wells (a process used less frequently since it was called out as a major contributor to the state’s rash of earthquakes).
With the strict protections now imposed on the Arbuckle-Simpson, you might think this wouldn’t be a concern to the overall water supply of Ada and the surrounding cities. But in terms of the law, unintentionally drilling down into an area of stored water is very different from intentionally pumping water out of the aquifer. With the Arbuckle covering roughly 520 square miles, any mining operation anywhere in the area runs the possibility of hitting groundwater.
“We’re talking about substantial amounts,” Ford said. “Some amounts that are being removed from some facilities are the same amount that Ada uses on an annual basis.”
This is proving to be a tougher fight than the CPASA is used to, as the provisions allowing the mines to remove as much water from the ground as needed are already written into accepted law. Forcing them to be changed would be a much different and more challenging bit of legislation than researching pumping limits or placing holds on new permits.
A drop in the bucket
On Oct. 28, 2021, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, as senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee in the U.S. Senate, questioned Dr. Christopher Frey, President Joe Biden’s nominee for assistant administrator for R&D at the EPA.
The main topic of their exchange was Ada and the Arbuckle-Simpson.
Inhofe’s concern, like that of anyone with an eye on water in Oklahoma, is the continued funding and backing of the E.A.R. efforts in and around the aquifer. But, as Frey pointed out, what happens to the Arbuckle-Simpson has implications around the country.
“This is an important priority for us,” Frey said of the EPA continuing to fund and support the E.A.R. research at Kerr Labs in Ada. “I know it is important to you and to Oklahoma, and it’s also important that the same issues are faced in other parts of the country as well.”
In Oklahoma, as elsewhere, temperatures are rising, populations are growing, and lakes and rivers are drying up. And the water demands of the agricultural and mining industries aren’t going away.
For now, the Arbuckle-Simpson is still overflowing, its waters still glistening and babbling above the ground.
Finding new and effective ways of recharging the aquifer, of understanding and recognizing conjunctive use, and of accounting for the water used in Oklahoma might be the last, best option for keeping it that way, and it could also help provide the entire country with worthwhile approaches to the growing threat of water shortages.