Experts: Expect more water deals

The Journal Record
By M. Scott Carter
Jan. 10, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust announcement of a five-year agreement to sell water to the city of Coalgate could set the state’s capital city up as one of the largest water suppliers in the state, some water experts said.

But others said the city’s effort to expand its water supply efforts is a bad idea.

Oklahoma City’s latest water deal comes on the heels of an ongoing legal fight between the OCWUT, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, state officials and the Choctaw and the Chickasaw nations. In August 2011, both tribes filed a federal lawsuit over the OCWUT’s purchase of water storage rights from the Sardis Lake Reservoir.

Water experts said deals like the Coalgate-Oklahoma City sale could become more common.

“We are seeing more and more of this and we’ll be seeing more of it,” said Miles Tolbert, an attorney with the Crowe & Dunlevy law firm. “It’s expensive to go get water and it’s expensive to treat it. Larger cities have economies of scale.”

Places like The Village, Tolbert said, couldn’t possibly build their own pipeline to Lake Atoka.

Coalgate isn’t the only water supply contract held by Oklahoma City. Over the past few years, the OCWUT has signed a long-term water supply contract with Moore, Norman and several other smaller metro-area cities.

“That’s part of the advantage for Oklahoma City,” Tolbert said. “They are able to spread their cost of obtaining the water along to more customers.”

Still, Tolbert said the issue represents a changed thinking about water.

“We had a long period of time when we could afford to not be too concerned about water law,” he said. “But that time is clearly behind us now. We don’t need too many summers like last summer to realize there are many challenges to the issue.”

Part of the problem, Tolbert said, was that previously when Oklahoma residents thought of water fights, they imagined the arid West.

“We don’t think of the East,” said Tolbert, the state’s former secretary of the environment. “The supply of water in the Eastern part of the country has always been such that water law has never loomed large in public policy.”

But Oklahoma’s location in the middle of the country, he said, has brought the issue of scarce water in the West to the Sooner State.

“Issues like water policy are beginning to percolate here,” Tolbert said.

“In the last decade we’ve seen litigation over moving water from the Arbuckle Simpson Aquifer, litigation between Oklahoma and north Texas over water and litigation between Oklahoma City and tribal nations,” he said. “I would say that none of these forces that are driving the increased focus on water are likely to go away. The only way those issues are going to be resolved is either through negotiation or litigation.”

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