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Bill to encourage accurate water usage reporting passes Oklahoma House of Representatives

Oklahoma's Capitol Dome
Kateleigh Mills
Oklahoma's Capitol Dome

A bill that aims to encourage irrigators to accurately report their water use is making its way through the Oklahoma legislature.

Some Oklahoma farmers have permits to use surface water to irrigate their crops. Those permits are issued by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, and they allocate each irrigator a certain amount of water.

That water use isn’t metered, but irrigators are required to report how much they use each year. Existing state law incentivizes irrigators to use all the water they’re allotted — or at least to say they used it all.

If an irrigator reports they needed less than their entire water allotment, the OWRB can allot them less the next year, so the leftover water rights can go to someone else.

Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, said he’s heard horror stories from farmers in his district.

I had many of my farmers complaining that they had [an allotment of] 2 acre-feet,” Newton said. “They reported they used 1.7 acre-feet, and then the next allotment came back at 1.7. And the next year was dry, and they really needed to use the 2 acre-feet, but they couldn't do it.”

Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, says because of this law, many irrigators fudge their usage reports in order to keep their allotments.

“Right now, they report their full usage where they don't use it, which isn't what we want them to do,” Lowe said.

This leaves the OWRB without accurate data about how much surface water Oklahoman irrigators need.

At the request of the OWRB, Lowe authored House Bill 2197 to amend the way usage reports affect water permits. It would only apply to irrigators who use surface water.

This bill would allow irrigators to explain a decrease in water use — maybe they had unusually high rainfall one year, or they tried out a less water-intensive crop — and keep their full allotment.

It would also penalize irrigators who fail to report their water usage by revoking their permit altogether.

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, theorized that the bill could lead to over-allocation of Oklahoma’s surface water. Even if they couldn’t lower existing allocations as easily, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board would have a better idea of water availability.

“Wouldn't they look at that and say, ‘We now have excess capacity that we can allocate?’” Fugate asked.

Other representatives questioned a provision that would allow the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to immediately stop an irrigator from using any surface water if the board has “reasonable belief” the irrigator is stealing water or threatening other users’ water rights.

The bill passed the House 78-14 and will now move to the 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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