Fishing near Hugo Lake park, which lost its state park status in June 2013.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Gov. Fallin Signs Law Giving Oklahoma Water Regulator Regional Representation

  • Logan Layden

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Water advocacy groups praised the new law, saying it it would give a bigger planning voice to rural areas, especially water-rich southeastern Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board is a big advocate for regional water planning, the idea that local control over who uses what water and where it’s sent will lead to better conservation.

But the move toward regional planning signed into law Friday by Gov. Mary Fallin isn’t exactly what the board had in mind.

“We had nothing to do with this bill,” OWRB Executive Director J.D. Strong says.

The measure, Senate Bill 965, was co-authored by state senators Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward and Mike Jackson, R-Enid. Starting in 2014, as each member’s term expires, the governor will chose new members from each of nine regions of the state.

Previously, the governor appointed one OWRB member for each of the state’s congressional districts, and four at-large members, for sevenyear terms.

Water advocacy groups didn’t feel that system gave rural areas enough of a voice, especially in southeast Oklahoma, where much of the state’s water resources are concentrated.

The OWRB doesn’t disagree, but Strong wanted to keep the appointment process the same, and have the board oversee at least 13 regional water planning groups made up of local stakeholders. From the 2012 update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan:

Such plans would include the identification of specific projects, studies, programs, research, and other evaluations designed to address the unique needs and issues identified by Regional Planning Group participants.

Advocacy group Oklahomans for Responsible Water Policy actively encouraged supporters to call Gov. Mary Fallin’s office and encourage her to sign the bill, and celebrated on its Facebook page after she did:

GREAT NEWS!!! SB965 was signed into law …Bill to ensure all regions have representation on Water Resources Board becomes law

Strong tells StateImpact he’s not against the new law, necessarily.

“It’s the legislature’s and governor’s job to tell us how they want to structure our board, so that’s what they’ve done,” Strong says. “They’ve exercised their legislative authority, and this is how they want to do it.”

And he says the OWRB’s idea for regional planning isn’t dead.

“It’s still on the table because this doesn’t come remotely close to doing that,” Strong says. “I would suspect that the folks who really pushed that through the water planning process aren’t going to be satisfied until they see it through.”

Advocacy groups support that idea, too. But The State Chamber’s Arnella Karges told StateImpact earlier this year that the results have been mixed in state where regional water planning has been tried, like Texas.

“There are regions in Texas where it has worked well. There are regions in Texas where is has not worked well. There are some places where they’ve been able to make compromises. There are places they haven’t,” Karges told StateImpact. “Where you can’t make compromise about how and where to use water, nothing occurs. Development shuts down.”

But the Chamber supported SB 965. In a letter to Fallin, Kargas urged the governor to sign the bill into law.

“Senate Bill 965 is an effort to ensure the OWRB’s responsibility for water planning is protected at the statewide level and not disseminated to multiple regional planning councils, which have the potential to escalate intrastate conflicts,” Kargas wrote.

Contributing: StateImpact reporter Joe Wertz