Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Why Oklahoma City Won’t Tap Water From the Aquifer Under Its Own Feet

The Garber-Wellington Aquifer

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The Garber-Wellington Aquifer is part of the Central Oklahoma aquifer, which every major city in the region uses — except Oklahoma City.

Moving water from the southeast Oklahoma to Oklahoma City is highly controversial. The battle over who controls water across most of that part of the state still has the state, city and tribal governments tied up in court after more than two years.

If only there was another large source of water, near the metro, that OKC could use. Well, State Sen. Jerry Ellis, D-Valliant, says there is: The Garber-Wellington Aquifer. And he’s tired of seeing Oklahoma City take water out of his district in the far southeast corner of the state.

“They’ve got other things. They’ve got groundwater. They’ve got the Garber-Wellington Aquifer there,” Ellis says.

What Aquifer?

StateImpact had never heard of the Garber-Wellington Aquifer. Neither had any of the half-dozen or so OKC residents we asked outside the Utilities Department downtown.

Norman, Okla., well operator Scott Lewis with Well #52, one of 36 that serve Norman.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Norman, Okla., well operator Scott Lewis with Well No. 52, one of 36 that serve Norman.

It’s part of the larger Central Oklahoma Aquifer, an underground water supply that stretches from Guthrie to Noble, Mustang to Shawnee. And every major community in the area relies on it, at least in part — except Oklahoma City. Utilities Director Marsha Slaughter says that’s not how it used to be.

“We started out on wells. The utility started in April 1889 with one well at the stationmaster’s house — the Santa Fe Railroad stationmaster’s house. People brought their own bucket,” Slaughter says.

Relying mostly on shallow wells along the North Canadian River worked — for about 20 years.

“Until about 1910 when we went dry. And there were about 24,000 people here at the time. And there was no water to be had,” Slaughter says. “So we built Lake Overholser, and then we built Lake Hefner to capture rainfall.”

Oklahoma City stopped maintaining its last wells in the early 1990s. And there are no plans to turn back to the aquifer now, despite the intense resistance to taking more water from other parts of the state.

“So 250,000 gallons a day from a water well means you need four wells to make a million gallons,” Slaughter says. “And if you’re looking to make a peak demand of 200 million gallons a day, wells are just impractical for us, for the size of system that we operate.”

Even adding Garber-Wellington water to the mix poses problems. Just ask Ken Komiske, utilities director in Norman, where aquifer water provides about one-third of his city’s needs.

“There’s issues with the aquifer, too,” Komiske says. “It’s not from pollution. It’s not from contamination or industrial uses, but it’s a heavy metal aquifer. So, just in the rocks are a lot of minerals like arsenic, chromium, cadmium, vanadium.”

There are federal regulations that have to be adhered to and standards to meet when dealing with those potentially dangerous elements.

And any aquifer water Oklahoma City uses leaves less for surrounding communities, many of which already turn to Oklahoma City for water when their wells go dry during droughts. But Slaughter says that doesn’t stop thousands of residents — within the city limits — from living off the water grid.

“We have about 14,000 houses inside the city — particularly on large lots — who have their own water supply systems,” Slaughter says. “Lots of lovely homes on very large lots are very independent.”

But that independence might not last. The state water regulator is studying the Garber-Wellington. The Oklahoma Water Resources Board will eventually consider putting a limit on its use to keep it from being depleted, much like the recent maximum annual yield determination for the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer. That process that went on for 10 years.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.


  • ejinkens

    We in northwest Ok. would like to see OKC take water from areas that get plenty of rain per year. Northwestern, southwestern and western OK just don’t get enough rain fall to support a large city. Please don’t let the western half of the state dry up and cities out here die. Canton lake is till 13 ft below normal and winter coming on there is still no way we can fill it back up with very little moisture during the winter. I keep seeing reports from Ok fishing report Hefner is always full, if only OKC could have waited 3 weeks before taking our water they would have had plenty with the amount of rain they have received. When they were done we were 17 1/2 ft. below normal.

    • T. Adams

      Taking water from areas of known water quantity is problematic. I also reside in northwest Oklahoma but throwing S.E. Oklahoma’s at times abundant water supply under the Oklahoma City insatiable quest for water bus is no solution. Based on past behavior give OKC free reign and they will consume every drop and then continue to turn to the northwest again and again for more water simply because the Corp of Engineers made a very loose and inexpensive lifetime agreement with Oklahoma City years ago.
      We rural people should unite together statewide to protect and limit basin transfers to urban populations that are loosely implementing real water conservation instead of taking the heat off of one situation at the expense of another. Rural Oklahomans united can hold urban populations accountable but you have to get united and actively involved in what it really is which is rural vs urban. Rural Oklahoma gained a victory recently in gaining equal representation on the board of the OWRB as a result of the uniting of rural Oklahomans as well as many urban supporters by passing SB 965. One does not accomplish this task alone or at the expense of another rural area in Oklahoma. Bear in mind we rural people are up against a giant of a population that is willing to capture the gain for the many at the expense of the few. Federal law and purpose that regulates Corp managed lakes needs to be addressed but that change does not come easy. The Corp Of Engineers follows the laws and we the taxpayers should be initiating repurposing to those laws. That process should be simple but trust me it is not.

      • Barrister15

        We should ask why does the GWA have these heavy metals and unusually high levels of uranium and thorium. Answer is perhaps controversial but I have mounds of documentary evidence. Why? Thanks to Kerr McGee. From 1963 – 2005 KM operated what was known to public as a “technical center”. It was far from any employee training center. It was the Pilot Plant of Kerr McGee Nuclear Fuels hold radioactive (Source Materials) licenses from ACE and NRC from ’63 to ’05.
        I believe the Pilot Plant was chosen because it sits in the NE corner of the Aquifer, where KM dumped so much radioactive waste directly into the Aquifer beginning in 1991 when they began quickly trying to get rid of the evidence when residential land was being developed around. Add to that KM’s Cimmaron Fuels plan just south of the Cimmaron River that feeds directly down into the aquifer. There they pumped plutonium directly into the Cimmaron River daily for at least 15 years. The location remains a Superfund Site. The Pilot Plant buildings still exist east of Portland/SH 74 between NW 150th and 164th. You’ll note ODOT is building new highway there, a couple hundred yards west of the contaminated property. Yes, absolutely contaminated. What ODEQ will admit is a very large Chloroform Plume at over 200,000 times above levels permitted in drinking water. KM listed this pilot plant as a toxic waste site while its Subsidiary was in Bankruptcy in Southern District of New York. The Justice Department intervened and brought Criminal and Civil claims against KM, Anadarko Petroleum and Tronox LLC.
        I suspect politicians know more about the contaminated water issues than they are willingly to openly admit. Here is what troubles me. Many geological groups are trying to determine why Oklahomas fracking operations are causing more earthquakes in Oklahoma with greater intensity. Well, I think they need to start requiring the O&G companies to disclose all the contaminants they are pumping into the ground and aquifer laced with radioactive contaminants in an aquifer that abuts a very large fault line. I think Oklahoma will continue to a rise in frequency of quakes and intensity. All that is being dumped into our bedrock and aquifer is literally a ticking time bomb. Sad that local authorities try to ignore the facts of what I’ve briefly summarized. I nearly lost my life getting this information. Yes literally.

        • paganpink

          Oh for God’s sake! Get the tinfoil off your head and do something helpful in this world. Did you know that imagining conspiracies is one of the signs of dementia? If you are over 50 get some help.

    • paganpink

      Oklahoma City built Canton lake! It’s not a naturally occurring lake. And for years they didn’t drop it down. Then when they pulled water after their multi million dollar investment was finally needed the residents complained that it hurt their tourism. That’s ridiculous!

  • Walley Morse

    pump water from the Mississippi River when it floods. You would have plenty of water.

  • Concerned

    Should be thinking about holding on to reserves of water in our aquifers. Should start thinking about water collection from rain water like the old days and use rain water collections during heavy rainy seasons from large cistern storage containers. Keep aquifers secure for grave emergencies only. We are fortunate to have what we have and had best learn how to hold on to it.

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