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Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability



Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Executive Summary

Oklahoma has a humid subtropical climate that changes daily and seasonally making it hard to predict. During long summers, the state experiences hot and humid summer months. Maher and Ding (2019) observe that the hot and dry months have been longer and more persistent in the last two decades than recorded in the twentieth century. This climate predisposes Oklahoma to have historical water challenges. The growth of the population in the Oklahoma Metropolitan area worsens an already dire situation. Currently, Oklahoma City residents face major water shortages, a trend is likely to continue if the State and municipal governments fail to come up with better water management strategies. In the last few decades, the State governments in collaboration with its agencies such as Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust (OCWUT) and Oklahoma Water Resources Board have continually come up with plans to reduce the severity of water shortage. This report examines the current water condition in Oklahoma City as well as the measures in place to reduce the current crisis. Additionally, the report offers a combination of solutions based on the research on Oklahoma’s climate, economy, politics, and social patterns.









Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

1.      Introduction Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Oklahoma City is 621 square miles and among the largest ten States in the USA in terms of geographical location. The state spreads over to four countries including Canadian, Cleveland, Pottawatomie, and Oklahoma. Oklahoma State is the center of the city. In 2016, Oklahoma State distributed over 33 billion gallons of water for domestic, industrial, and commercial use (Maher & Ding, 2019). Oklahoma City has partnered with McGee Creek Authority to provide more than 117 miles of pipeline systems serving water to the locals. Even then, Oklahoma remains one of the cities with severe water challenges. The geographical and political attributes of Oklahoma State and its proximity of water resources to its urban communities create unique challenges when designing effective water distribution systems.

Over the years, Oklahoma State has worked alongside experts and agencies to create solutions for its water crisis. However, to date, the stakeholders have not come up with a reliable solution; or so we must assume since the crisis continues to worsen. This continued failure of intervention strategies is due to complex geopolitical aspects that predispose Oklahoma City as a red zone when it comes to water shortage. Oklahoma lies between conflicting zones of hot and warm regions. The rainfall humidity and perspiration experienced in Oklahoma depend on short-term aspects such as winds around the region, humidity, and water evaporation (Oklahoma Drought Management Team, 1997). This makes it hard for the agencies in charge of water distribution to map out rainfall shortages or floods in the future. This has continually led to poor management of rainwater and unexpected droughts that worsen water demands leading to socio political conflicts. While the proposed and underway programs and projects to reduce this crisis in the city must be respected, we must continue looking for better and future-oriented solutions.

While climate and geography of Oklahoma are primary determinants of the continued water shortage and droughts, poor collaboration between state agencies, manufacturers, farmers, and domestic users further heightens the crisis. For instance, in 2018, recreational tourists complained that the lakes in Oklahoma are running out of the water while the residents were still watering their lawns. The Executive Director of Oklahoma Water Resources Board J.D Strong confirmed that there are no statutory that prioritizes tourism, recreational swimming, and fishing over other productive uses of water (Vieth, 2019). However, the agency notes that lack of key statutory that protect natural water resources at the public level also reduce public participation towards water sufficiency at a personal level. This fact about the social, political, and economic aspects surrounding the water crisis in Oklahoma shows the need for a better approach towards this crisis. The proposed solutions in this report follow a comprehensive review of the water crisis, real-time interviews with water experts, and a review of agency reports on the crisis.

2.      Literature Review Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Causes of Water Shortages in Oklahoma State & Oklahoma City

a.      Climate/Evaporation

It is interesting that Oklahoma has some of the biggest water reservoirs in the world yet faces such a severe water shortage. A report by the Oklahoma Water Resource Board indicates that Oklahoma has more than 22 underground water basins. In total, these basins have more than 390 million acre-feet. The largest groundwater basin is the Ogallala Aquifer with 90 million acre-feet of water supply (Oklahoma Water Resource Board, 2020). If spread out, water from that single basic can cover the entire state- two feet deep. However, due to natural aspects a nd safety considerations, only half of this water resource is recoverable.

Oklahoma lies in a geographical location that harbors consistent wind from the south or southeast. These winds are constant from winter, through spring, summer, to autumn. The trend leads to a high rate of atmospheric disruptions leading to varying seasons and amount of rainfall. Oklahoma has approximately 1401 square miles of open surface water such as lakes, oceans, and ponds. The state has approximately 167,600 miles of rivers and other flowing water masses. The climatic factors make Oklahoma experience one of the highest evaporation rates in the region. The annual evaporation rate for Oklahoma lakes and oceans is 48 inches per year and up to 65 inches in the southwest side (Oklahoma Water Resource Board, 2020). These averages are much higher than annual rainfall in the region. This means that the state is continually using its water aquifers without any alternative sources of water to replace the used. Therefore, naturally, Oklahoma is predisposed to severe water shortages in the future.

b.      Sociopolitical Aspects-Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Some of the water management plans proposed by the OCWUT have faced major criticism from the locals in Oklahoma, a trend that reduces the efficiency of water planning. Most locals in Oklahoma feel they have an obligation to enjoy their natural water resources through domestic use farming and watering lawns. On the other hand, corporate entities and large scale manufacturers feel entitled to use water for commercial purposes as agreed in their business licenses. Although the federal and state governments favor the commercial and productive uses of water, this tendency creates a spirit of revolt among the local water users which challenges plans such as water rationing and responsible use of water at home.

Oklahoma City relies on both surface water (56%) and underground water (44%) for its daily use. Out of total water used in the State, 73% goes to farming and crop irrigation while the rest 27% goes to domestic and commercial uses. As observed by (Oklahoma Water Resource Board, 2020). The challenge of water in Oklahoma City is an extension of water shortages in the entire region. The state policies seem to favor commercial companies that use more than 41% water and leave only 32% for public supply and 12% for aquaculture. It is important to note that 12% for public supply is inclusive of small businesses that do not require special permits from OCWUT to run their businesses. Again, this social tendency of water allocation follows the geopolitical aspects of Oklahoma that sees the state receive approximately 10.5 million acre-feet of water while 36 million acre-feet flow out of the surface water bodies (Oklahoma Water Resource Board, 2020). This creates mistrust among different regions in Oklahoma as well as among the local populations and surrounding States. If this trend continues, Oklahoma will become a vast desert. The State can maintain its high rainfall index but the high outflows and evaporation rates will surely reduce the water sources.

c.       Poor Public Participation

Oklahoma has made major changes to its water supply systems. The planning of today’s Oklahoma City water systems dates back to 1910 when city leaders came together to ensure their 35,000 citizens would have enough water. At the time, people in Oklahoma City relied on wells that often went dry during the summer. In 1917, the city council completed the Overholser Reservoir; the only one was serving the Oklahoma urban community. Plans to increase reservoirs continued through 1930 when the entire state suffered one of the severest droughts in its history (Oklahoma Water Resource Board, 2020). Since then, OCWUT and Oklahoma City have continued to develop more reservoirs to accommodate the growing population. Currently, Oklahoma has a population of approximately 649,000 people although the metropolitan population exceeds 1.2million people. Since the completion of the 1954 Oklahoma water system master plan, the city has not come up with adaptive measures to cater for the growing population.

In terms of policy and management, Oklahoma City is ranked among the best cities in the USA. Moreover, the twentieth century by the city council and the stakeholders to find water from interstate water bodies shows the leadership’s commitment to the overall benefits of the people. Between 1910 and 2010, Oklahoma City has constructed more than seven reservoirs serving Oklahoma City. However, despite this strategic management, the city faces water shortages mostly due to its location. Oklahoma Water Resource Board (2020) agrees that the city’s master plan that has seen the construction of the current reservoirs considered the natural patterns of rainfall and drought alongside the growing populations. However, the master plan did not put into consideration the individual and group conflicts that might arise from the water distribution systems.

Today, Oklahoma County is in crisis with other counties accused of drying up the surrounding water bodies leaving regular and rural dwellers without much-needed water bodies for livestock and recreation (Williams, 2018). While experts and officials of Oklahoma City understand the historical climate dangers faced by Oklahoma, the general public, which uses approximately 32% of all water for Oklahoma City fails to understand the severity of the situation. This leads to uncoordinated water usage plans, which creates conflict. For years now, Oklahoma City has adopted water sharing plans that allow people to water their lawns on specific days of the week leaving the other days for other accounts. Even then, locals have been accused of violating these systems leading to lower efficiency of this and other measures adopted by the municipal government to ensure that everyone gets water for domestic use.

3.      Methodology Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

This study will use mixed methods to correct data and make conclusions about the water crisis in Oklahoma City as well as offer possible solutions. To begin with, the study will use correlation methods to examine the existing agency data on the Oklahoma water crisis. Most of this data has been persistent in the literature review and offers an insight into the best methods to further understand this crisis. Correlation method is a quantitative method where a researcher uses multiple secondary sources to trace the most persistent data, create data sets, and make informed conclusions. This form of method is applicable in topics that do not have a rigid conclusion or whose variables are determinant on some qualitative aspects. In this case, a correlation study will help the researcher understand the perception of the various stakeholders in Oklahoma water services as well as their future plans.

Additionally, the study will rely on report analysis. Oklahoma, with a history of drought and water shortages, has recruited dozens of experts and institutions to look into its water crisis and recommend the best approaches to ensure future sustainability. The agencies include but not limited to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB), the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust, and the Oklahoma Drought Management Team. Although the reports seek to come up with solutions to water shortages in Oklahoma State and Oklahoma City, they vary in areas of focus and timelines. The triangulation of the data contained in the report will thus offer a comprehensive review of the City’s water shortage as well as the various proposed solutions.

The study will also adopt qualitative Data collection methods to investigate the subjective factors that might affect the policies introduced by Oklahoma City towards water sustainability in the future. The preliminary study has identified that community conflicts and lack of public support might affect water sustainability in Oklahoma City. Other community-based aspects include hospitality towards group action and the predominant use of domestic water. The use of qualitative data collection methods will allow the study to examine the immeasurable factors that affect water shortage in the city. The qualitative method used is interviews with the OML Mr. Daniel MC clure who works  in the  Oklahoma Municipal League. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the interview will take place via email and phone calls. The emails will have structured questions guided by the factors identified in the literature review. The survey will seek to understand the following factors and their relations to Oklahoma water shortage challenges.

  • Growth of water shortage for the last ten years
  • The efficiency of the introduced methods to ensure sustainability
  • How is the current environment change affecting water shortages?
  • How will the environment in Oklahoma look in the next two or three decades?

The  interview with the expert will be unstructured questions drawn from the four concepts aimed at the course. The primary objective of the unstructured interviews is to understand the personal and corporate perception of the expert towards water shortage in Oklahoma City and the entire state at large. The initial data collection method in this cluster will give expert opinions without bias. However, to fully understand the efficiency of the methods adopted by the Oklahoma Municipal and other shareholders, it is important to allow experts to speak freely and occasionally criticize any failed mechanisms adopted by the government. The expert was allowed to speak freely and offer an unbiased opinion on whether the current systems and measure put by the office he serves have the necessary level of efficiency in ensuring Oklahoma become water sufficient in the future.

4.      Discussion-Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

The report by the Oklahoma Water Resource Board (2019) shows that Oklahoma has been facing water challenges since the nineteenth century. Although most of these challenges were not documented, they can be traced back to the drought and famine experienced in the region. This comes from the climate of the region that allows high evaporation rates of water. Although Oklahoma has some of the largest water reservoirs in the United States, some of these resources are not accessible. The evaporation rate continues to shrink the surface water bodies projecting an even severe water shortage in the future.

The population of Oklahoma has also contributed to the continued water shortage in the state and metropolitan areas. For instance, in Oklahoma City, the population has grown from barely 35,000 people to almost 650,000 people. Although the state and metropolitan governments have been working hand in hand to expand capacity and accommodate the population growth, these expansions often fail to consider the social and cultural conflicts created by people merging into metropolitan areas.

The issue of subjective culture and social stratification and how it affects water shortages in Oklahoma can be better understood from a conversation with my client. Mr.Mc Clure, he  agrees that the Oklahoma water shortage has persistently grown alongside population growth. However, he finds the true challenge to water sustainability as the methods used by the government and key shareholders. The water systems in Oklahoma have always been politicized and meet the social and political profiles of investors and political elites. However, through social actions, these plans have achieved most of the intended outcome but leave a lot to be desired. He suggests that Oklahoma water systems have been a strong political power and a bargaining chip for both political and economic milestones. The large corporations in the State and in the city focus on keeping their operations running despite the water shortages. Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

According to the client, the operations in charge of water in Oklahoma have been compromised through political influence. Oklahoma City ranks among the best-managed cities in the USA. For the municipal government to achieve this, it has to consider the economic viability of all its decisions. Therefore, the current water shortage in Oklahoma has been created by economically justifiable decisions by the State and City governments of Oklahoma. For instance, for years, the City of Oklahoma has refused to amend its water usage statutory to limit the use by large scale manufacturers and other commercial uses to allow locals to enjoy nature recreation water bodies. While this decision might preserve the environment and save Oklahoma from future water shortages, it would have short term economic impacts, which would eventually affect the locals.

Eventually, the social-political aspects that control water management lead to inefficiency sustainability programs. For instance, according to Layden (2015), water levels in Oklahoma City Reservoirs were extremely low during 2010, 2011, and 2012 droughts. The city faced an imminent danger of a long period of water shortage. The municipal government reacted by diverting water from City sources, a decision that created a political up heal at a State level. The surrounding States felt that the decision undermined their right to share natural resources that occur in the region. Despite the decision reached by the Supreme Court, this political conflict resulting from water created a different perception of how Oklahoma should deal with its water crisis. It is evident that Oklahoma City would not survive major droughts without the help of outside water sources in other Counties. In preparation for future droughts, the City should come up with strategies that give it leverage over other States and use this leverage to receive water during shortages. These could include inter-country on natural resources sharing.

Mr. Mc Crule believes the political war between countries in Oklahoma has affected not only Oklahoma’s state water shortage but also replicates a similar pattern in other cities in the States. ‘There is a break-down between private-public partnerships,’. Most of the resources in Oklahoma and the surrounding areas are reliant on the urbanization and population growth of Oklahoma City. For the last two decades, there has been open conflict between the city and the private investors who seek to retain their rights to use water for commercial production. On the other hand, the politicians are under pressure from the locals who want water for their lawns and for fishing. While the experts understand the importance of collaboration between these stakeholders, the residents of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City do not understand the long-term impacts of disrupting this relationship. The leaders need to address their populist agendas conflict with their need to maintain economic growth. This mistruth frustrates funding efforts for water programs. The private sector prefers to invest more in legal defense in mistrust for the municipal and state governments whose interests are politically driven and dynamic.

‘If anyone has lived in Oklahoma for some time, then he or she knows that drought is coming, (Vieth, 2019). Oklahoma has been noted to have droughts in long intervals of about ten years. The trend has been persistent since the late nineteenth century. The persistence of this trend has allowed the Oklahoma Water Board to compile chronological impacts of environmental changes to water shortages. Environmental changes in Oklahoma trigger a long-lasting chain of events starting with climate change. As people continue to cut down trees for expansion and wood, they increase the number of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and reduce the cover of natural wind arrestors. Natural wind arrestors such as hills and trees have been linked to lower perspirations and lower evaporation rates. Oklahoma reported the highest evaporation rate in the southwest side in 2011, which was an average of 64 inches. This record-breaking evaporation from natural water bodies coincided with longer periods of hot weather and one of the severest droughts on the region. Layden (2015) reports that these recurrent droughts are worsening in nature, a phenomenon linked to the changing environments. For instance, the number of farms in Oklahoma City reduced from 11% in the 2000s to only 4% in 2018. This shift has been led by changing soil ph. and humidity retention index. These aspects also contribute to faster evaporation and a shorter period of ice falling, which reduces distributed precipitation.

Mv client  believes that the Oklahoma environment is changing rapidly than expected. In the early 2000s, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board projected that the master plan of 1954 would be sufficient to meet the water shortages. This assumption was based on the capacity of River North Canadian and River Kiamichi to feed five major reservoirs Canton, Hefner, Overholser, McGee, and Atoka. The projections also included the growth of the population. However, experts undermined how natural factors will work together to worsen Oklahoma’s water shortage. For instance, the increasing level of precipitation (ice-falling) and evaporation means that Oklahoma receives a shorter period of rain in specific regions and the water quickly evaporates leaving the lands dry and vulnerable to drought. The changing environment across America has also contributed to the water shortage patterns in Oklahoma. As more areas continue to develop, so does the demand for water and water enchantment areas. The demand for water increases when the natural sources continually become unable to maintain the demand. For example, cutting down a forest to build a commercial building increases the water demand in the area while consequently reducing the region’s ability to hold water.

Reports analysis alongside the interview with Mr. MC clure indicates that Oklahoma State will experience even worse droughts and Oklahoma City will experience severe water shortages. In terms of environment, the surface water bodies will continue to dry up due to high evaporation. The climate will continue to become dries with an increase of south and southeast winds, which will further increase the evaporation rates in the regions. Strategic models need to be put in place to ensure Oklahoma’s water shortage does not become severe than it currently is.

5.     Findings Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

The study has confirmed the following facts about Oklahoma State and Oklahoma City water shortages

a.      Water Shortage-Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Oklahoma City has been experiencing a water shortage for the last century. The shortage is an extension of the water shortage in Oklahoma State. The state lies in a geographic location known for persistent winds and long summers that increase the evaporation of surface water bodies. The state records evaporation rates almost double its annual average rainfall. This means the natural aquifers are slowly depleting and will not sustain the demand in the future.

b.      The efficiency of Water Sustainability Programs

The study notes the low efficiency of water sustainability programs at both the municipal and state level. The Oklahoma States lacks a unifying policy at the State level that allows free sharing of natural resources for regional growth. At the same time, Oklahoma City  faces challenges due to mistrust between public and private investors. The politicking of water shortage in Oklahoma has led to self-interests in the programs leading to inefficiency.

c.       Environmental Changes-Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Just like most places in the USA and the world, Oklahoma if facing random environmental changes that affect climate patterns. This makes designing and implementing water sustainability programs in Oklahoma difficult. The increasing afforestation and global warming are changing the temperatures and speed of winds across America thus increasing evaporation rates. These changes are expected to continue through the next few decades if the socio-economic and political aspects remain constant.

d.      Future of Oklahoma Water Shortage

Oklahoma will certainly experience worse water shortages. The chronological analysis by environmentalist and water sustainability agencies indicates a persistent growth in water shortages and droughts in Oklahoma. Cumulatively, factors that lead to water shortages are growing faster the State and the City’s ability to adjust to new realities. At the same time, there is a conflict between stakeholders that reduce the efficiency of water sustainability programs in the region.

6.     Recommendations-Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

The reports recommend the following undertakings to ensure water sustainability in Oklahoma

a.      State Level Engagements

The case of Oklahoma City and legal battles in attempts to get water outside its county is proof that Oklahoma is politically divided when it comes to the use of local resources. Oklahoma City is important to the rest of the State and harbors major private investors who would contribute to water programs. State, Local, and municipal governments need to work together to achieve long-lasting solutions.

b.      Better Private-Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

Public Relationships- The current public-private relationship held by the people of Oklahoma frustrates programs aimed at increasing the availability of water. This relationship can be mended through statutory changes by OWRB and OCWUT.

c.       Invest More on Research

Until 2010, Oklahoma City water systems development relied on a master plan done in 1954. A recent water system design would have considered current aspects such as global warming and the reduction of forest covers. All water sustainability programs initiated by Oklahoma governments should go under scrutiny after every ten years to confirm that the program’s objectives are still aligned to the long-term of increasing water availability in all of Oklahoma.

7.      Conclusion Oklahoma Water Crisis and Future Sustainability

It is unarguably true that Oklahoma has water shortages at State and County levels. Oklahoma City has  high water demands for commercial use. The municipal government of the city prioritizes productive water uses to ensure economic growth. On the other hand, locals from other districts complain of depletion of water surfaces denying them recreational services. This sociopolitical divide on how to use the available water predisposes Oklahoma City to current and future water shortages. It is advisable for the State government of Oklahoma to come up with State-level strategies that eliminate the sociopolitical differences and focus on a common agenda. Projections indicate that Oklahoma will continue to face water shortages due to changing climates and increasing demand for water for domestic and commercial use.



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Maher, J., & Ding, A. (2019, December 19). Oklahoma City water conservation and awareness. Retrieved from

Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust. (2017). The City of Oklahoma City Water Conservation Plan. Retrieved from

The Oklahoma Drought Management Team. (1997). Oklahoma Drought Management Plan. Retrieved from Oklahoma Government website:

Oklahoma Water Resource Board. (2019). UPPER ILLINOIS RIVER IN STREAM FLOW PILOT STUDY. Retrieved from OWRB website:

Oklahoma Water Resources Board. (2020, January 31). Water facts. Retrieved from

Vieth, W. (2019, October 28). Confronting the water crisis With J.D Strong. Retrieved from

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