OKLAHOMA CITY – For the second time in this century, an attempt is being made to sell Oklahoma water to another state, this time to Missouri.
The proposal is embodied in House Bill 4127 introduced by state Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy.
The Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) “shall conduct a study on the sale of the waters under its control to the State of Missouri,” HB 4127 states.
The bill was assigned to the House Rules Committee, which is commonly referred to as a “graveyard” for unpopular legislation. The committee met Tuesday but HB 4127 was not on the agenda.
“This is all about money,” former state legislator Jerry Ellis of Valliant said.
Dan Sullivan, the CEO and president of the GRDA, receives a salary of $330,000 a year after the board of directors approved a $40,000 per year raise last August. “The director makes $1,000 a day, excluding Sundays,” Ellis noted. “If the GRDA is permitted to sell water under its control, he would likely receive another fat raise.”
‘High-Dollar Water Lawyer Taught Me Two Things’
A “high-dollar water lawyer” from Albuquerque, N.M., “taught me two things,” Ellis said.
First, any individual, organization, agency or state that wants to siphon water from Oklahoma “needs to prove that they have exhausted all available avenues to provide water for their people and their needs in their state,” Ellis asserted. “Before they come after our water, have they built reservoirs, drilled wells, and enforced conservation where necessary?”
“On the other side of the coin,” Ellis continued, “before any decision is made to sell Oklahoma’s water to another state, one question should be asked: Have the water needs of every citizen of this state been fulfilled? And the answer to that is ‘no’. Just ask the folks in western Oklahoma, for starters.”
Water is “an invaluable natural resource that we must protect,” Ellis said.
Missouri Has Lots of Water, State Resident Points Out
“Why on earth would we need water that’s under the GRDA’s jurisdiction – unless there’s money to be made for someone, or for several someones in both states,” said a former Oklahoma newspaper reporter who’s a Missouri native and is retired and living in the “Show Me State”.
“We have scads of lakes and rivers,” she said.
“Not only do we have the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, both of which have experienced record floods in recent years, we have the White, Kings and James rivers, which enter Table Rock Lake, plus Taneycomo and Bull Shoals lakes; below us there’s Beaver Dam near Eureka Springs, plenty of water that way; in southwest Missouri closest to Oklahoma there’s the Elk River, a large river used for floating, which goes through Noel, MO, a short distance east of the state line.”
Furthermore, she said, “It seems like they’d have to pump water uphill to get it here.”
“I wonder how many pumps they’d burn up sending that water uphill,” echoed Ellis.
GRDA Established To Conserve Water
The Grand River Dam Authority was created by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1935 to be a “conservation and reclamation district for the waters of the Grand River.”
GRDA manages more than 70,000 surface acres of water in northeast Oklahoma, including Grand Lake and Lake Hudson, both on the Neosho River, and W.R. Holway Reservoir (formerly known as Chimney Rock Lake) southeast of Salina on Saline Creek.
The GRDA carries out its mandate by controlling and storing the Grand River’s waters and by generating waterpower and electrical energy “to use, distribute, and sell within the boundaries of the district.”
The GRDA has three hydroelectric facilities and distributes wholesale electricity to 24 counties in eastern and northeastern Oklahoma. In early 2012 GRDA added wind energy to its portfolio by partnering with Canadian Hills Wind Power Project of western Oklahoma to acquire and distribute wind-generated electricity. By the end of that year GRDA power reached into 75 of the state’s 77 counties, serving 16 municipalities and 23 member-owned rural electric cooperatives. The indirect or direct service reached 500,000 electric meters, and GRDA was the nation’s sixteenth-largest public power utility.
In addition, on July 1, 2016, the Grand River Dam Authority absorbed the mission and responsibilities of the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission. That mission is to protect, enhance, and preserve the aesthetic, historic, archaeological and scientific features of the Illinois River and its tributaries (Lee Creek, Little Lee Creek, Barren Fork Creek, Flint Creek, and the Upper Mountain Fork).
North Texas Water District Tried to Take Okla. Water
In about 2007 Tarrant Regional Water District headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, tried to buy water in Oklahoma before it empties into the Red River, because the latter is salty. Oklahoma declined the request, citing laws that protect its water.
The regional water district then sought a permit from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) to take surface water from a tributary of the Red River at a point located in Oklahoma’s portion of one of the river’s subbasins.
Tarrant Regional figured that the OWRB would likely deny its permit application because of Oklahoma water laws that effectively prevent out-of-state applicants from taking or diverting water from within Oklahoma’s borders. Consequently, TRWD filed suit in federal court simultaneously with its permit application, seeking to enjoin the OWRB from enforcing the state statutes on grounds that they were pre-empted by federal law in the form of the Red River Compact and violated the federal Commerce Clause by discriminating against interstate commerce in water.
The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where Tarrant Regional’s arguments were soundly rejected, 9-0, in 2013.
In the opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the sovereign states possess an “absolute right to all their navigable waters and the soils under them for their own common use.” The Court also pointed out that the Red River Compact allocates water rights equitably within the Red River basin among the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and was approved by Congress in 1980.