Tulsa’s water board hasn’t taken an official position on the one measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that could have the greatest impact on the city’s water supply — State Question 777, commonly known as Right to Farm.
That doesn’t mean individual members of the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority don’t have opinions. They do. And Lou Reynolds gave his Thursday, taking a verbal wrecking ball to an otherwise staid meeting of the authority.
“It is phenomenal to me that anybody would claim they (farmers) need this,” Reynolds said. “They are incredibly protected.”
That was Reynolds at his mildest.
“It reminds me of so many of these ideas,” he said. “It’s just a solution looking for a problem. They (farmers) don’t have a problem — we have the problem. If anyone needs protection, it’s us.
“It costs everybody in the city of Tulsa money to clean up their mess, and that includes, you know, Owasso to Glenpool to Okmulgee and to the rural (water) districts that distribute water that we produce and treat for them.”
State Question 777 would give farmers and ranchers an additional — and some argue unprecedented — level of protection by prohibiting the Legislature from passing laws that would restrict farming and ranching practices unless there is “a compelling state interest.”
Critics of the proposal, including Reynolds, believe passage of SQ 777 could free farmers, especially large, corporate farms, to do as they please to the land and lead to practices that would damage the state’s natural resources.
TMUA has first-hand experience with the potential adverse effects of farming and poultry practices. The authority and the city of Tulsa filed a lawsuit in 2003 against poultry integrators and the city of Decatur, Ark., over alleged pollution of the city’s water supply.
The city and TMUA argued in part that chicken waste used by farmers as fertilizer was being dumped upstream from the city’s water supplies in Eucha and Spavinaw lakes and eventually ending up in the water supply. The resulting high concentration of phosphorus led to higher algae levels and gave the water a foul odor. This made the water more difficult and expensive to treat.
The case, which cost city of Tulsa water customers millions of dollars to litigate, resulted in settlement discussions that have led to a drastic reduction in poultry waste in the Eucha/Spavinaw watershed.
So Reynolds was not sympathetic to the notion that there is a disconnect between “folks in the city and folks in the country” regarding SQ 777 — an assertion he attributed to the Oklahoma Farm Bureau’s director of public policy, Mark Yates.
“I’m stunned by that. The disconnect is I don’t want a bunch of chicken crap in my lakes. I don’t want a bunch of cow manure in my streams. … I don’t want the dirty air,” Reynolds said. “It’s just phenomenal to me. We don’t have a disconnect — it’s the Farm Bureau’s disconnect. They want the absolute right to be able to pollute Oklahoma.”
Reynolds had even less patience for what he said was Yates’ assertion that farmers are “the original environmentalists” and good stewards of the land.
“It’s fascinating because farmers, it’s just slash and burn — but instead of slash and burn, we’re just grow and dump, grow and dump, grow and dump,” Reynolds said.
Yates called Reynolds’ remarks rhetoric not based in fact. The Farm Bureau, he noted, represents nearly 30,000 family farmers and ranchers statewide – not the corporate farmers that Reynolds and others claim Oklahomans should fear.
“This idea that State Question 777 has anything to do with farmers and ranchers being able to operate with impunity and pollute the water is false rhetoric,” Yates said.
It is important to note, Yates added, that Attorney General Scott Pruitt has stated publicly that SQ 777 would not eliminate or in any way reduce regulations on drinking water.
“I understand the opposition’s rhetoric just plays to people’s emotions, but it is not based on fact,” Yates said.
The Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority oversees the city of Tulsa’s water distribution and treatment system. Customers consume an average of 209 million gallons a day from a natural water supply that is drawn from Eucha, Spavinaw and Oologah lakes.
But water quality isn’t the only reason Tulsans should be concerned about SQ 777, Reynolds said.
“As we go to try to expand and grow into areas that are agriculture, our zoning code is not going to apply to hog farms that sit outside the city limits if we annex that,” he said.
Reynolds added: “It (SQ 777) interacts with the city of Tulsa with the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. There may be a sanitation issue, some other type of issue that’s not a water issue — a nuisance issue, a feed lot next to the city limits, whatever it might be. It might be a sediment runoff from improperly plowed and maintained fields.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would make it as difficult as possible to regulate farming and ranching, despite claims on the Right to Farm website that it would not create a blank check for the industries to do whatever they please, Reynolds said.
“They’ve had a blank check to dump hundreds of thousands of tons of agricultural waste,” Reynolds said. “You know, expose it to the air, the land and the water in the state of Oklahoma, and not a single (legislator) in Oklahoma City, it seems, (is) bothered in the least bit.”
Yates said the constitutional amendment is a response to proposed legislation in Oklahoma and across the country that would make family farming more difficult and more expensive. In California, for example, there is a push to reduce methane levels by regulating cow flatulence. In Oklahoma, a legislator proposed that ranchers pay to have a veterinarian put cattle down before they could be dehorned or castrated, Yates said.
“So when we see stuff like this being pushed by the Humane Society of the United States, the new, improved, bigger, faster, stronger, richer PETA, when we see Sierra Club pushing these kinds of environmentalist regulations on to farmers and ranchers, we believe unreasonable regulations and feel-good legislation not backed by science or research drives small farmers out of business,” Yates said.
Those kinds of obstacles to family farming, Yates said, are what he was referring to when he mentioned the disconnect between city folks and country folks.
“We represent nearly 30,000 farmers and ranchers — they are not corporate farms,” he said.
TMUA officials say the authority has not taken a position on SQ 777 because it was told by its attorney that it could not issue resolutions in favor or against state questions. However, the authority has tried to address the issue in other ways.
Last year, TMUA pushed for passage of House Bill 2446, which defines water as a compelling state interest.
TMUA Chairman Rick Hudson referenced the bill during Thursday’s discussion of SQ 777.
“The Farm Bureau is not our friend on this thing,” he said of SQ 777. “But we have decided, as a board, because we have (HB) 2446, we feel that is a good arrow in our quiver to prevent any further damage to our watershed.
“I mean, it is not a real strong arrow, but it’s better than taking a knife to a gunfight.”
Although Reynolds stole the show Thursday, he was not the only authority member to hint at his displeasure with SQ 777.
At the start of the discussion, as authority members listened to an update on the status of SQ 777, authority member Richard Sevenoaks asked, “What about our lockstep senator that came out with a new ad” in favor of SQ 777.
Sevenoaks said later that he was referring to U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe.
Reynolds, too, expressed disappointment that Inhofe and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn have expressed support for SQ 777. Reynolds said he admires both men.
“It just shows, no matter what you think of someone, they can be wrong,” Reynolds said. “And they just are, and it is really unfortunate.”
The Tulsa City Council has passed a resolution pointing out the potential adverse affects of SQ 777 and encouraging residents to look closely at the measure before casting a vote. The Tulsa Parks and Recreation Board, meanwhile, has passed a resolution in opposition to the proposal.