Four Takeaways From Last Night’s Water Conversation
More than 70 people attended the March 20 OnTap event at Picasso Cafe in Oklahoma City to discuss water policy and drought
1. Water is Personal
Of all the wonky subjects we’ve covered — energy, taxes, jobs, government, ballot questions — water policy seems the most personal. It’s a natural resource and a commodity that is bought, sold, traded and transferred. But attendees didn’t discuss water the same way they might talk about oil or natural gas.
The cultural legacy of the Dust Bowl likely plays into the visceral nature of many water conversations in Oklahoma, but a lot of last night’s conversation hinged on the communal nature of water.
Water connects all Oklahomans, literally and figuratively. It connects residents with businesses, city and state with citizen, and nature with infrastructure.
Water also turns strangers into neighbors. Canton Lake is 90 miles away from OKC, but the two are linked. When the floodgates are opened and Canton Lake is drained to re-supply the capital city, Oklahomans — on both sides — are aware of the impact and the tough balancing act.
2. Okies Eye Other States
A theme repeated throughout the hour-long conversation: Oklahoma isn’t doing enough. When it comes to water, other states are better at planning and policy. Colorado and Nevada were both called out, but several audience members used San Antonio, Texas as leader in water conservation.
By 2012, San Antonio had grown 67 percent — and experienced almost no increase in water use. During a drought. How? “Our business model is to convince our customers to buy less of our product,” the San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente tells our partners at StateImpact Texas:
---> Puente largely credits this feat to an arsenal of conservation programs. San Antonio has relied on what Puente calls “the three-legged stool”: education and outreach, reasonable regulation through effective city ordinances, and healthy financial investment towards conservation efforts.
San Antonio recycles a lot of water, has diversified its sources of water, has initiatives to retrofit toilets for efficiency, and takes enforcement seriously.
3. Lets Get High-Tech and Low-Tech
One attendee questioned the limited data supplied by standard water meters. If electric utility meters can be upgraded to provide customers with a real-time snapshot of power usage and data of peak use — why can’t the same be done with water meters? It can be done, and is being done. But it’s expensive, OKC’s Marsha Slaughter pointed out. And upgrading electric meters is a lot easier than swapping out non-electrified water meters with new, digital models.
One attendee was interested in whether OKC was considering any out-of-the box engineering and infrastructure ideas. Another brought up permaculture, the concept of ecological design and sustainable planning. Should OKC prioritize aesthetic water uses during a drought? What about watering grass and plants in medians, and irrigating parks? The parks department has been told water cutbacks could be coming, Slaughter told the crowd.
4. More Questions Than Answers
- Mike is right. A lot of specific questions went unanswered. Unfortunately, water policy is a tough topic to tackle. Balancing all the different water uses — municipal, power, flood control, navigation, tourism — is already a challenging task. When drought limits supplies, things get even more complicated.
- As Col. Michael Teague with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described it to us: Oklahoma water policy is a big bathtub that we're all in. Water leaving the tub makes ripples. Ripples become waves, and we bump into each other as we bob up and down.