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Stitt vetoes bill that would require Oklahoma irrigators to track how much groundwater they use

United States Department Of Agriculture

Gov. Kevin Stitt has vetoed a bill that would have required farmers, ranchers and other commercial irrigators to track how much water they pull from Oklahoma’s aquifers. Lawmakers said House Bill 3194 could help Oklahoma understand and protect its groundwater stores.

Sponsored by Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, and Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, the bill would not apply to domestic wells, only high-volume industrial wells. It would require permitted commercial groundwater users to track how much water they use.

“If we don't have underground water in western Oklahoma, we cease to exist,” Newton told the House.

He highlighted the Ogallala Aquifer in Northwestern Oklahoma, which is declining by about a foot every two years.

“I'm probably gonna have enough water to last my lifetime,” Newton said. “My concern is for my grandkids. What are they going to have?”

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board already limits groundwater use for permitted users. A commercial groundwater user can only draw enough water to cover their land in 2 feet of water each year.

But currently, there’s no way to verify how much water commercial wells are pulling from the state’s aquifers. Users self-report on a form each year. Although overuse is a concern, lawmakers say they think many irrigators use less than they report, for fear they’ll have their limit lowered otherwise.

The Oklahoma Legislature voted to change that. HB3194, which would have taken effect this November, would require commercial groundwater users to monitor and document their water use.

Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee
LSB Photo
Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee
Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus
LSB Photo
Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus

But Stitt put the kibosh on it Monday, calling it “government overreach at its finest.”

“While forcing water meters on Oklahomans may seem innocuous, it is undoubtedly a violation of private landowners’ rights and emboldens the government to continue down that path,” Stitt wrote in his veto statement.

When the Senate considered the bill in its final version, Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, expressed similar concerns.

“As you collect this data, it gives opportunity for other agencies — not just Oklahoma, but federal agencies — to sequester that material and then begin regulating farmers at a greater degree,” Jett said.

But Howard said the idea is to give the Oklahoma Water Resources Board an accurate picture of the state’s groundwater use, which he argued would help irrigators.

“You're going to take great strides in getting information to the Water Resources Board, taking off that big hurdle about how accurate that information is,” Howard said.

Jett also expressed concerns about the cost to irrigators, who would be responsible for installing equipment to monitor their water use. In its final form, the bill allows for alternative usage monitoring. For example, farmers using center-pivot irrigation could use water pressure over time and pipe size to calculate water use.

Another option would be to track how many hours a well pump is running. Howard said most irrigators already track that, so they know when to service the pump.

“Could be as low as $0,” Howard said. “If you want to take one of the fancy [meters], could be up to $3,000.”

If irrigators opted for the more expensive but more accurate metering options, they could average their use over 5 years. That would allow some leeway to use more water during dry years, as long as they made up for it in other years.

The bill passed the Senate 37-7 last week. It passed the House 67-20 in March. Now it’s up to the legislature whether to overturn the Governor’s veto.

A similar bill that originated in the Senate has stalled in the House.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU.