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Oklahoma lawmakers consider water metering requirements for irrigators, cannabis growers

United States Department of Agriculture

The Oklahoma legislature is considering closer monitoring of water use. The Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee advanced two bills that would add metering requirements for cannabis growers and some other irrigators Thursday.

Sen. Brent Howard (R-Altus) introduced Senate Bill 1341, which aims to enable more regulation and understanding of how commercial irrigators use Oklahoma’s underground water stores.

“The surface water is basically owned or regulated by the state,” he told the committee. “Groundwater is owned by the individuals, but it is subject to regulation by the state. We're trying to get some teeth behind that, some coordination between those two.”

Although irrigators have rights to the groundwater beneath their land, they can only use enough to cover their property in two feet of water each year.

But when it comes time to report their usage to the state, irrigators simply write down their best estimate in good faith.

Howard said that leaves the Oklahoma Water Resources Board without key data or the ability to enforce limits.

“Whatever number you write down on your renewal application or your yearly report is all that the Water Resources Board has to rely upon,” Howard said. “They do not have any ability to go out and check.”

Howard’s bill would require some irrigators to install meters on their wells. Specifically,those who draw from aquifers in danger of running dry. In order to qualify as one of those “critical groundwater management area,” an aquifer would need to have undergone scientific study by a federal or state agency.

To start with, Howard said this bill would only apply to the Upper Red River Basin in Southwest Oklahoma. Howard said many irrigators in the region already meter their groundwater use to optimize efficiency. He estimated the legislation would require about 400 irrigators to install new meters on their wells, which would cost them about $300-$500 per well.

“I do not want to overregulate,” Howard said. “I just want to make sure that everybody is abiding by the same rules and that we have that information as those rules are applied.”

The committee voted unanimously to put SB1341 before the full Senate.

Another bill to increase metering requirements — Senate Bill 1352 from Sen. David Bullard (R-Durant) — was met with more pushback.

That bill would put more scrutiny on water use by commercial cannabis growers. Those whose water consumption isn’t already metered by a public water supply would be required to meter it themselves.

If the bill passes, a municipality or county could also require cannabis growers to pay an additional $1.25 fee for every 1000 gallons of water they use, whether it comes from a well or a public supply. Some of that money would go to the municipality or county collecting the fee, and most would help the state maintain its lakes and reservoirs.

“A typical marijuana plant requires six gallons of water a day,” Bullard said. “We want to make sure that we're metering that and using those funds to be able to store and capture more of that water.”

But other committee members asked for more information about how these fees would affect local business owners.

Sen. Shane Jett (R-Shawnee) voted against the bill. He said he thinks this legislation would harm small business owners without doing much to stop bad actors.

“Individuals who are stealing water from farms, by using fire hoses and siphoning off under cover of darkness — those people are not going to be paying these fees,” Jett said. “The ones who are are the moms and pops who are already struggling to stay open after sinking their life funds because they thought this was the new economic boom coming for Oklahoma.”

Ultimately, the bill passed out of the energy committee 10-2. Both measures now move to the full Senate.


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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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