The Oklahoma Water Resources Board will consider granting a long-delayed application by the City of Oklahoma City to begin withdrawing water flowing from Sardis Lake and the Kiamichi River in southeastern Oklahoma.
On Monday, an OWRB hearing officer issued a proposed board order that would grant Oklahoma City’s application to pull 115,000 acre-feet, or around 37.5 billion gallons, of water annually from Sardis Lake and the Kiamichi River for municipal use by the city and the city’s current and future wholesale and retail water customers.
According to the city’s amended application to the OWRB, it will not begin pumping water from the Kiamichi River until 2035, when it expects to pump around 8,000 acre-feet per year. That amount would increase each year, until it reaches 115,000 acre-feet of water per year in 2065.
The OWRB is scheduled to consider the application for final approval during its next regular meeting on Oct. 10.
Oklahoma City first applied to the OWRB to use water from the Sardis reservoir, located near Clayton, in 2007, but a federal lawsuit filed against the city, the city’s water utility trust, the OWRB and Gov. Mary Fallin by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations in 2011 stalled the application. That lawsuit, however, was settled in 2016, clearing the way for the city’s application with the OWRB to proceed.
Sardis Lake was constructed during the mid-1970s, the state entered into an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a lake in southeastern Oklahoma to store water for municipal and industrial uses, with the state agreeing to pay money back to the Corps. over 50 years. Sardis Lake dam was completed on Jack Fork Creek, a tributary of the Kiamichi River in 1983. However, the state stopped making payments in the 1980s, and the federal government sued the state in the late 90s for the money it was owed.
In 2007, Oklahoma City filed an application with the OWRB to withdraw 80,000 acre feet per year of water from Sardis Lake. That application was amended in March 2010, requesting a permit to appropriate 130,000 acre feet of water from the reservoir.
In June 2010, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board approved a $42 million agreement with Oklahoma City, which had already been seeking rights to the water for years for its own municipal water supply and to sell water to other entities, that gave the city access to 90 percent of the water in the lake in exchange for the city paying off the state’s debt.
The deal raised howls of protest by residents, businesses and American Indian tribes in the Sardis Lake area, who said the city would drain the lake and devastate one of the area’s most important industries — tourism. About a year after the deal was made, the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation filed suit.
According to the proposed board order issued on Monday, after the lawsuit by the tribes was settled, in January 2017 the city amended its permit request to withdraw 115,000 acre-feet of water annually from Sardis and the Kiamichi River from pumping facilities to be located at one of four points near Moyers Crossing in Pushmataha County.
The application states that the city will be able to release water from the dam into the Kiamichi River, and then pump the released water from the Kiamichi to Oklahoma City. The current application reflects the agreement set forth in the settlement with the tribes, the proposed order states.
During the settlement, the parties designated a team of technical experts to come up with a hydrological model that set water usage conditions that were “more stringent than previously contemplated,” including a lake level management plan for area lakes, setting the rate at which water is diverted, setting the Moyers Crossing diversion point, setting aside 20,000 acre-feet of water for future use, the proposed order states. The model was dubbed the “Kiamichi Model.”
The proposed order states that 85 people protested Oklahoma City’s amended application, but only 25 were recognized as parties to the decision, and only half of those showed up to an OWRB hearing in August on the matter.
Those protesting the application and their attorneys argued that the Kiamichi Model was flawed, in that it does not accurately measure the area’s domestic water usage, the software used to create the model was not adequate for the job, does not estimate whether there will be enough water for fish and wildlife in the river after the water is diverted, and does not take into account the views of those who live in the Kiamichi basin.
However, the hearing officer determined, those protesting the application did not present sufficient evidence of their claims or viable alternatives to meet Oklahoma City’s growing need for other clean water sources.
The amount of water being withdrawn will leave little for fish and wildlife downstream, especially during the summer months and during times of drought, thus hurting the area both environmentally and economically, said Kevin Kemper, an attorney representing most of the individuals protesting the application’s approval.
“It’s going to destroy Pushmataha County,” said attorney Kevin Kemper, who represents several of the people who are protesting the application’s approval. “Oklahoma City wants to come to the poorest county in the state and take away its resources.”
Jennifer McClintock, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City’s Utility Department said she was unable to respond to questions about the proposed order by press time.