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State Budget Agreement Brings Sharp Funding Cuts to Agencies Overseeing Oklahoma’s Environment

Oklahoma Water Resources Board project coordinator Jason Murphy takes water samples at the Canadian River east of Oklahoma City.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma Water Resources Board project coordinator Jason Murphy takes water samples at the Canadian River east of Oklahoma City.

After months of deliberation and closed-door meetings, lawmakers in the Oklahoma House and Senate are poised to cut a deal to fill a $1.3 billion shortfall and fund government for 2017.

The $6.8 billion presumptive budget agreement has been praised for preserving money for education, prisons and Medicaid, but some of the sharpest cuts are aimed at agencies that regulate industry and protect the environment.

Outfitted in rubber waders on a frosty winter morning in the middle of nowhere, Jeanette Lamb with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission kicks up a pile of mud from the riverbed at Walnut Creek, along a farm in rural McClain County.

She stares deeply into the mud, searching for a light-brown critter whose big mandibles pack a punch.

“That’s what I’m looking for,” she says, before warning, “They bite. It’s a Dobsonfly larvae.”

The kinds of bugs she finds — or doesn’t find — says a lot about the health of this stream.

“They cannot tolerate pollution at all,” she says. “They’re very sensitive.”

If Lamb finds something wrong, she’ll work with local landowners to identify the pollution source. She didn’t find any problems here during her inspection last winter, at least with the wildlife. But her agency’s budget situation is another story, according to the Conservation Commission’s Water Quality Manager, Shanon Phillips.

“[In] 2009 we had a staff of 40 people,” Phillips said. “We now have a staff of 25. Future cuts would mean further reductions in staff.”

The Conservation Commission will likely receive a 9 percent cut, and the agency’s director Trey Lam says it already operates on a barebones budget.

“Currently 20 percent of the state’s Conservation Districts are sharing employees, including seven districts that have no staff,” Lam says. “Our ability to protect our natural resources and maintain our flood control system is at risk.”

The new cuts could hurt the commission’s ability to monitor the health of small waterways and maintain more than 2,000 flood-control dams across the state.

State Senators Greg Treat, Clark Jolley and David Holt emerge from a Republican Caucus meeting after members agreed on a framework for a $6.8 million state budget.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

State Senators Greg Treat, Clark Jolley and David Holt emerge from a Republican Caucus meeting after members agreed on a framework for a $6.8 million state budget.

Regulatory reductions

Even steeper reductions are likely coming for other environmental and regulatory agencies. The Department of Mines and the Water Resources Board are on tap to have their state funding reduced by 12 percent.

“We will probably have to scale back our monitoring a little more,” says OWRB executive director J.D. Strong.

The funding cuts will degrade the Water Board’s ability to monitor the health of lakes, rivers and streams, Strong says. The state’s water regulator will likely have to slash the amount of money available for its Rural Economic Action Plan program, which grants money to local water managers who need to make expensive fixes to their crumbling water systems. Strong says the REAP account will be cut by at least $400,000.

“That will mean fewer grants that we’re able to provide to really small, rural communities across the state to help them improve wastewater and drinking water infrastructure,” Strong says.

Vance Pennington, a regional manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, inspects a chlorine treatment system at a water treatment plant in Chandler, Okla.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Vance Pennington, a regional manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, inspects a chlorine treatment system at a water treatment plant in Chandler, Okla.

Small towns, big problems

The cuts could hurt other agency programs designed to fix water problems in small communities. The Department of Environmental Quality also faces a 12 percent reduction.

“What will suffer in the longer term if we continue to receive general revenue cuts, is our ability to do some of the things that especially the smaller communities rely on the most,” DEQ’s Deputy Director Jimmy Givens told StateImpact in February as the 2016 legislative session was about to start.

Many of the DEQ programs protecting Oklahoma’s air and land are paid for with fees and federal dollars, but oversight and inspection of local water systems is funded by state revenue. Cuts to state funding disproportionately affect DEQ programs that make sure local water supplies are safe to drink, and that wastewater discharged from municipal and industrial sources isn’t polluting the environment, Givens said.

In response to years of budget cuts, DEQ has closed field offices. It used to have 39, it now has 22. The agency has also sharply reduced its roster of inspectors — from 89 to 58 — that monitors community water systems, which struggle to keep up with increasingly strict federal rules.

If DEQ can’t ensure clean drinking water for Oklahomans, the harder-nosed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could step in and takeover. That’s a last resort, but it could be a big challenge for small towns used to the state agency’s soft touch.

“EPA has the residual right to come in and do enforcement,” Givens said. “Nobody particularly wants that.”

Harold and Amy Coulter with their granddaughter at Walnut Creek State Park, which closed due to budget cuts in October 2014.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Harold and Amy Coulter with their granddaughter at Walnut Creek State Park, which closed due to budget cuts in October 2014.

Pushing out parks?

The Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation is also in line for a 12 percent hit to its state funding.

The agency has responded to previous budget cuts by shedding state parks. This year, officials have considered turning over some small parks near Grand Lake to the Grand River Dam Authority. Spokesperson Leslie Blair says that’s still a possibility.

“At this point it’s too soon to know what our exact approach is going to be,” she says. “We’re taking a look at the bill and seeing what those numbers are.”

More responsibility, less funding

Agency leaders say the 2016 budget agreement outlined in Senate Bill 1616 chips away at a funding stream that’s been declining for years. At the same time, the responsibilities of those agencies are increasing as the federal government imposes stricter environmental rules.

Officials say some environmental and regulatory programs could disappear. Even whole agencies aren’t safe. The Scenic Rivers Commission had all its funding stripped in 2016 and will cease to exist on July 1.

The Grand River Dam Authority will assume its responsibilities — and employees. GRDA CEO Dan Sullivan was shocked when he first saw the budget the Scenic Rivers Commission was working under.

“I can’t imagine that they’ve been able to do what they have done on the budget they have,” Sullivan said.

Small Oil and Gas Producers Urge Lawmakers to Keep or Amend Rebate for Unprofitable Wells

Columbus Oil Company owner Darlene Wallace in the field with a "stripper well," which produces two-and-a-half barrels of oil a day.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Columbus Oil Company owner Darlene Wallace in the field with a "stripper well," which produces two-and-a-half barrels of oil a day.

The deadline to fund state government is rapidly approaching, and legislators are struggling to bridge a $1.3 billion budget gap. One idea is to end a tax rebate for unprofitable oil and gas wells, but small oil and gas producers say their safety net shouldn’t be used to plug the state’s budget hole.

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Next Republican House Leader Has Roots in Southeastern Oklahoma Water

Rep. Charles McCall, R-Atoka, in early May was tapped by his republican colleagues to be their next leader.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Rep. Charles McCall, R-Atoka, in early May was tapped by his republican colleagues to be their next leader.

Republicans in the Oklahoma House of Representatives last week chose a new leader for 2017: Charles McCall. The Republican is from Atoka in southeast Oklahoma, which could bring a unique perspective on water to the capitol.

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Federal Scientists Worried Oklahomans Were Getting Wrong Message on Earthquakes, Records Show

Shaken residents line up inside Edmond's Waterloo Baptist Church to voice concerns and ask representatives from the Corporation Commission and the state Geological Survey questions about recent earthquakes.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Shaken residents lined up inside Edmond's Waterloo Baptist Church in June 2014 to voice concerns and ask officials questions about Oklahoma's spike in earthquakes.

Federal researchers feared Oklahomans were getting inaccurate information and inadequate warnings from state government scientists and officials tasked with studying and responding to a surge of earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity, a StateImpact investigation has found.

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Why Killing the Agency Protecting Oklahoma’s Most Delicate Rivers Might Be the Only Way to Preserve Them

Grand River Dam Authority CEO Dan Sullivan speaking to the April meeting of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Grand River Dam Authority CEO Dan Sullivan speaking to the April meeting of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission is a small agency with a big job: Police the Illinois River and protect six of the state’s most delicate waterways from pollution. But budget cuts have forced the commission to plan  for its own death.

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Fight Over Sardis Lake Entangled in Ancient History, Indian Culture and Sacred Water

Grave sites at the Sardis Cemetery go back well into the 19th century and many of them are homemade.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Grave sites at the Sardis Cemetery go back well into the 19th century and many of them are homemade.

The fight over control of Sardis Lake and water across southeastern Oklahoma pits the state against Native American tribes. To the Choctaw and Chickasaw who live in the area today — and for the Caddo who preceded them — water isn’t just vital to life: It’s culturally sacred.


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Sardis Locals Say Lake Economy Suffers As Southeast Oklahoma Water Fight Drags On

Donna McFadden in her closed convenience store along the north shore of Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma.

Allison Herrera / Invisible Nations

Donna McFadden in her closed convenience store along the north shore of Sardis Lake in southeastern Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s lakes drive millions of dollars of tourism to otherwise impoverished parts of the state. But the local economy around Sardis Lake is missing out because of uncertainty about the water’s future.

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The People Stuck In the Middle Of the Fight Over Southeast Oklahoma’s Water

Pat Starbuck outside the Choctaw Nation Community Center in Talihina.

Allison Herrera / Invisible Nations

Pat Starbuck outside the Choctaw Nation Community Center in Talihina.

Sardis Lake, in southeastern Oklahoma, is at the heart of a battle between state and tribal governments over control of water. Debate has raged over whether to pipe to north Texas, Oklahoma City, or western Oklahoma ever since it was built in the early 1980s. Stuck in the middle are the people who call the Sardis area home.


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As State Finances Stumble, Oil and Gas Leaders Rally to End Tax Credits For Wind

Continental Resources founder and CEO Harold Hamm, second to the left, at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association office in Oklahoma City.

Continental Resources founder and CEO Harold Hamm, second to the left, at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association's office in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma legislators are considering eliminating some tax credits and incentives for businesses to help plug a $1.3 billion budget gap. The state’s fiscal crisis has led some oil and gas leaders to push lawmakers to end incentives for the wind industry.

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