State water planners hope to wrap up by summer's end a pilot study that could shape the way policy makers balance future demand for water in Oklahoma's streams and rivers.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board this past week drafted a report of its Instream Flow Pilot Study of the Upper Illinois River. Because Oklahoma is one of only two states that lack instream flow programs, the draft report provides a conceptual framework that could be applied statewide. 

The draft report also includes detailed stream flow analyses for the Illinois River and two tributaries — the Barren Fork and Flint creeks — and projected flow scenarios based on projected demand in 2060. Those scenarios show consumptive use in 2060 combined with periods of drought could contribute to less than optimal instream flows. 

Instream flows are the amount of water in a stream set aside for nonconsumptive uses in order to preserve its environmental and aesthetical qualities. Minimum stream flows ensure environmental, social and economic benefits are met downstream. 

A comprehensive water plan developed for the state commissioned a work group in 2009 to develop "a process to ascertain the suitability and structure of an instream flow program for Oklahoma." An instream flow program was prioritized in 2012 when the comprehensive water plan was updated, and an advisory workgroup was formed and began meeting the following year. 

The stream flow analyses were provided by John P. Rehring, an engineer with the Carollo Corp. of Broomfield, Colorado. The company looked at data from the 2012 update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan and stakeholder input gathered during a series of public meetings. 

Rehring, during an advisory group meeting on June 27, said four mechanisms to prevent water shortages were examined as part of the pilot study. Those mechanisms included a numeric instream flow rule, voluntary efforts, adaptive management monitoring, and taking no action at all.

Owen Mills, water resources planner with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said while the pilot study may be used to shape policies, in never was intended for implementation. The pilot study, he said, will provide the advisory group — made up of representatives from more than a dozen stakeholder groups — something concrete to work with as policy discussions begin to take shape going forward. 

"I don't think we can get consensus," Mills said. "There's nothing that everyone agrees on, but maybe we could give them the two arguments here and they can let the legislature decide."

Mills said he and others who helped guide the pilot study hoped to find a way to help local stakeholders develop solutions for the watersheds that affect them. He described that as "the tricky part."

"We think it seems it ought to be a bottom-up approach," Mills said. "It's already controversial enough without us doing a top-down approach."

Robert Jackman, a Tulsa geologist, said the pilot study is "partly flawed." That is so, he said, because engineers failed to take into consideration during the flow analyses the contribution of the Boone-Roubidoux aquifer.

"You have to look at those like huge underground reservoirs — that's what they are, literally," Jackman said. "My educated guess could be 20 percent — plus or minus — of your flow comes from groundwater, or from springs, out of those aquifers."

Jackman said it is likely a U.S. Geological Survey study of those aquifers expected to be completed in a couple of years will back up that assumption. But he said there is other science that supports that assertion and the idea that "more studies are needed before we start waving the red flags about running out of water."

"They've only done half the study, so we need the other half," Jackman said. "That would include the aquifers, but then you have to address the quality of the water — there is enough concern that we need extensive studies on what's happening to the water quality control of the Illinois River Basin and the Grand River Basin ..., and I'm really concerned that it's being overlooked."

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