Divining OKC’s Water Future
OKC works to ensure water availability in the 21st century
Photos by James Pratt
Jack Fowler doesn’t usually stand on the bottom of Lake Hefner, but in early 2015, he did just that. Eventually overwhelmed by curiosity about the shrunken lake, he walked out onto what he described as “kind of an alien, unexplored landscape.”
Like so many treasure hunters and curiosity seekers, Fowler wanted to explore what was typically beneath 15 feet of water in the northwest Oklahoma City reservoir. Hefner was far below its optimum level, revealing parts of the lake bottom that most residents younger than 60 had never seen.
For many who visited or drove by the lake, curiosity about the uncommonly dry lake bed next gave way to thinking about why the lake was so low. It was common from 2011 to 2015 for OKC residents to fret about the water supply and its future. But others, like Fowler, considered it to be a type of justice for water usage practices over the years. “ ... That didn’t bother me,” he says. “I figured we’ve got that coming to us.”
Since spring 2015, the state has seen record rains that have done much to return reservoirs to normal levels, virtually eliminating the common chatter about water supplies. But water professionals and city leaders in the OKC metro area don’t let episodes of rainfall deter them.
They know the history of drought cycles on the Great Plains and expect drought to return again someday. The question is not if, it’s when. And when drought happens again, the supply and conservation efforts that are in place will determine whether there is just strain or full-blown crisis.
City leaders are preparing for that future with more investment in infrastructure to increase supply. But not stopping there, they also are developing programs of education for contractors and residents in how to keep from wasting water. Careful regulation processes will also help to curb waste.
In addition, some private local developers already are using concepts of neighborhood design that will provide a pleasant, livable environment while saving on long-term water use and costs.
Big City, Big Needs
Today, Oklahoma City is big and thirsty. It takes a lot of water to satisfy the needs of a city of its size: An average of 93 million gallons of water was used every day in 2014, according to Marsha Slaughter, the city’s utilities director. And she said that in that same year, 63 million gallons of waste was returned to the city for treatment.
Oklahoma City is constantly growing, so future need is always a concern. For example, in 2010, the Census Bureau reported around 580,000 residents within the 633 square miles of the city limits. By just 2013, the count went up to around 610,000 people.
A 2009 study estimated that Oklahoma City’s water needs would double to 316 million gallons a day by 2060.
Today’s system takes six surface reservoirs, four treatment plants and hundreds of miles of pipeline that connect your house with sources as far away as Atoka Lake – 100 miles from Oklahoma City.
A History of Smart Water Development
Constant and rapid growth has placed demands on city leaders from the very beginning of Oklahoma City in 1889 to the present, and one of the most pressing needs that could not be met without foresight and planning was providing enough water.
In OKC’s earliest days, there was one private well and water was sold by the bucket. You had to bring your own bucket, too.
Eventually there were about 15 private wells, which the city bought to establish a public water supply. With that, it started a water delivery system that had to constantly grow along with the quick population growth.
Seeing that wells were not going to keep up with the demand, city leaders convinced residents to build a reservoir in 1919. Lake Overholser, named after 16th OKC mayor, Ed Overholser, was built between Council and Morgan roads and south of Route 66. The North Canadian River flowing from the northwestern corner of the state was its source.
And not long thereafter, city leaders started a process of planning 50 years in advance for water needs, which is a practice that continues today. As soon as Overholser was completed, city leaders began to explore ways to catch the water that flowed down Bluff Creek, northwest of the existing city at the time.
After an interruption during WWII, water from Bluff Creek and much of its upper watershed was caught by a U-shaped dam, forming a body named Lake Hefner after Robert A. Hefner, the mayor of Oklahoma City during most of its construction.
And before Lake Hefner was even completed, city leaders already had their eye on southeastern Oklahoma as a more reliable source of even larger supplies of water. Plans were studied to build a supply reservoir near the town of Atoka; a 100-mile, 60-inch pipeline with pump stations; and a receiving reservoir with a treatment plant between Oklahoma City and Norman.
Completed in the early 1960s, today Atoka Lake’s water sent to Lake Stanley Draper is a key element of OKC’s water system.
Politics of water But the politics of water development were not always smooth, according to Pete White, current Oklahoma City Ward 4 councilman and chairman of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust.
In fact, White said because of the Council vote to build Atoka Lake, Draper Lake and the pipeline, “The very next election, the four people who were up for re-election lost their seats over their vote to bring water from Atoka.”
Not everyone agreed with the additional taxes to accomplish such a huge project that many saw as unnecessary at the time. Not everyone agrees on what needs to be done to meet needs 50 years in advance, and so it is a political struggle, but one that White stresses is important.
“The vision and the foresight of the leadership of Oklahoma City starting in the 1950s has probably gotten us where we are right now,” said White. “Anybody – like me – who tells you what we’re going to do is standing on their shoulders. They’re the people who put the plan together and they’re the reason that we are where we are today and gave us all of the opportunities that we have today.”
And the political struggles are still going on today, only not within the city limits. The strain today is between multiple parties: municipalities – such as OKC – that have historically worked with the U.S. Corps of Engineers to finance construction of reservoirs, and the various tribes of southeastern Oklahoma who claim that water resources in their tribal areas should be in their control and not left up to the state.
Each year over the last five, as the drought in western Oklahoma intensified, the legislators from those districts have pressed for a statewide plan to share water from east to west. Progress has been slow, however, due to disagreements about who the water really belongs to.
► Water-Saving Techniques for homeowners:
1. Look for leaks around the house. Household leaks waste 10,000 gallons of water a year.
2. If you have an irrigation system, do a checkup in the spring. A simple investigation may add up to savings all summer.
3. Replace old aerators with WaterSense labeled aerators or faucets. You could save about 700 gallons per year.
4. Make plans to visit a water conservation garden in the spring. You can find them at OSU-OKC, the OKC Zoo, the Myriad Botanical Gardens or Bluff Creek Park.
5. Use a water-efficient shower head. They’re inexpensive and easy to install, and the average family could save 2,900 gallons per year.
Supply for the Future:
Currently, Oklahoma City is in the process of adding a new 72-inch pipeline next to the existing 60-inch pipeline from Atoka to Draper lakes.
To illustrate earlier leaders’ ability to look ahead and anticipate needs of the growing city, White says, “When they built the pipeline from Atoka to Lake Draper, they bought enough right-of-way to put another pipeline in. That was in the ’50s and everybody thought that it was a fool’s deal anyway.”
But now we know that it was not.
“We are probably well into the middle of this century in terms of supply right now,” White says. “But in trying to be consistent with the people who came before us, we’re looking not to wait until the middle of this century to find out. We want to get ourselves in a position where we’re well into the second half of the century in terms of supply. And that’s where this latest push comes from.”
Conservation for the Future:
It will not be enough to just continue to try and add more supply of water, though, according to Debbie Ragan, public information officer for the Oklahoma City Utilities Department. Instead, the city is joining the statewide goal to hold the use of water resources in 2060 to the levels of 2016. (See “Water for 2060 Act.”)
Two new full-time staff members of the Utilities Department have been added specifically to lead conservation efforts: Malarie Gotcher, water conservation specialist and leader of the city’s conservation effort, previously worked for OSU doing research on new water conservation techniques and concepts before joining the city staff. Robert Reaves is the water conservation coordinator and is focused on generating “how-to” videos and leading education programs for the public. Last summer, he held workshops for homeowners on how to maintain yard irrigation (or sprinkler) systems; in 2016, he will add irrigation contractors to his training schedule.
► Water for 2060
Act In 2012, the Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 3055, which established a statewide goal of not consuming any more fresh water than is consumed today. The act calls for the use of incentives and education instead of mandates to achieve the goal without limiting economic growth – it will require a good deal of effort and cooperation, but we’re the first state in the country to establish such a goal.
Gotcher said that in many cases companies do not directly maintain their own landscapes and irrigation systems, but use contractors who may not be fully knowledgeable on how to tune systems for maximum effect with minimum amounts of water. And so the first effort in curbing the waste of business lawns is to give contractors new knowledge on how to design, install and maintain irrigation systems.
While home and even small business lawn irrigation systems may seem inconsequential to water usage in Oklahoma City, Gotcher emphasized the impact of those systems on water usage.
“Just one bad sprinkler head in one yard can waste up to 10,000 gallons of fresh water per year,” Gotcher says.
She also pointed out that when the reservoirs for Oklahoma City were being planned, the automatic irrigation systems that are so common now were only rarely used. Cities did not anticipate the added aggregate strain of lawn irrigation systems on the supply.
If Oklahoma City can successfully reduce water waste through better design and maintenance of water-using devices, the strain on existing sources will be relieved.
Lawn irrigation systems are a heavy retraining and education focus right now because other widespread consumption of fresh water has been addressed in such ways as the complete industry-wide shift toward low water use toilets and low-consumption shower heads.
Currently, the lawn irrigation business is largely unregulated and self-taught. Gotcher intends to change that through “education first, and then regulation.” They both said that if their education efforts spread in the future, their regulation efforts will not be as difficult.
What’s the key to Oklahoma City getting a majority of residents to participate? “It’s making sure that you involve all of your customers,” Gotcher says. “It has to be a community effort. It’s hard when your neighbor is watering every day and you’re doing your best to save water.”
But, regulation has arrived. Odd/even lawn watering days used to be a measure that was enforced during extreme drought situations. Now, it is a standing, mandatory rule with escalating fines with each repeated offense. Gotcher said that this year their approach to enforcement was to “educate first, and then cite someone if they persist in violating the code.”
► Conservation Help for Residents
A new website by the Utilities Department of Oklahoma City, SqueezeEveryDrop.com, is designed to give the public ideas and information about how to maintain yard irrigation systems. The amount of fresh water that can be lost over one year from one bad yard sprinkler head is 10,000 gallons – so save yourself some frustration and check it out.
Conservation by Design:
Richard McKown is one partner in his family housing development business, best known across the metro area for its Ideal Homes developments. In all, the company has 16 developments in the wider metro area.
In recent years, McKown has collaborated with several professors of sustainable landscaping to find the best solution to providing green spaces for those who buy into his housing developments while still conserving water.
“If you want to create better quality of water, you have to use plants,” McKown says.
He explains that in Oklahoma the soil is made up of so many clays that retention ponds must be built to allow rain runoff to have a place to go and slowly seep into the ground. His business uses what are called “detention-retention” ponds – designed to hold a certain amount of water year-round and provide an irrigation source as well as visual accent for the development.
Two recent suburban developments have included large park spaces, exchanging common spaces for smaller lots. That saves tens of thousands of dollars per year by using captured water in detention-retention ponds to irrigate these common spaces, while solar panels power the pumps.
Residents have the pleasure and quality of life enhancement of the green spaces, with little cost to the association that maintains the greenbelts. As it turns out, conservation is not only a good goal, it is good business.
Into the Next Century:
The advantage that the City of Oklahoma City and private developers such as McKown have is that the history of the municipality, and business itself, is to constantly look to the future and invent new solutions.
There truly is something about our shared history of both government and private business that allows us to look for solutions that may not have been tried before. Not every state’s culture and history makes that easy to do. But in Oklahoma City, constant change and growth has been the rule with only a few exceptions.
That’s how we grew in the past. It’s how we can grow into 21st century with the water that we need.