OKLAHOMA CITY — Groups of Oklahomans who are worried about the future of the state’s water went to the capitol Wednesday to encourage a change of direction.
Well, at least that’s what they hoped to do.
Oklahoma Water Lobby Day was a two-pronged event designed to instruct every-day citizens on how to lobby and to meet with lawmakers for said lobbying. But those plans hit a bump when organizers said Gov. Kevin Stitt — with whom they had a meeting planned for weeks — was unable to show up.
“We were very disappointed to show up and not be able to meet with the governor,” Johnson Grimm-Bridgwater, director of the Sierra Club’s Oklahoma chapter, said. “We had people drive in from as far away as Broken Bow and were really looking forward to getting a few minutes for them to tell their stories — as long-term Oklahomans who were born and raised her — of problems we need to address with water.”
Scheduling issues were the reason given for Stitt’s absence, Pam Kingfisher of the Green Country Guardians environmental group, said. Veterans groups were also at the capitol for an event Wednesday.
In a press conference, members of the group there for Oklahoma Water Lobby Day explained the grim picture they painted for one of Stitt’s aides about the current future of Oklahoma water. Their particular focus is in the northeast part of the state, where they say the increase in industrial poultry operations has only enhanced the issues of quantity and quality.
“Gov. Stitt is a businessman,” Ed Brocksmith, founding member of the Tahlequah-based group Save the Illinois River, said. “He knows the economic importance of clean water, and the importance of the quantity of water. We feel that he has the leadership necessary to get Oklahoma’s environmental enforcement program back on track.
“As evidence of the fact that it is off track is that Oklahoma has meaningful water quality limits for scenic rivers, like the Illinois River. However, those limits, which have been approved by the EPA and the Oklahoma legislature, are not being enforced.”
One of the major issues with water quality, Grimm-Bridgwater said, is in-stream flow, which is water that flows into rivers. He said Oklahoma is the only state east of the Rocky Mountains that does not have a policy specifically for this type of water resource.
The group is backing House Bill 1403, authored by Republican State Rep. Justin Humphrey whose District 19 includes Pushmataha, Choctaw and parts of Bryan and Atoka Counties. It would basically empower the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to conduct studies for the purpose of protecting in-stream flow sources to rivers.
But the title of the bill — the introduction of the bill that states what it covers — was stricken during floor debate, meaning it will have to go back to committee, where Grimm-Bridgwater fears it will die.
“The problem is there is a lot of confusion of what in-stream water flow means and what it does,” he said. “So it’s a lot of education, but there is also what we feel is a very incorrect discussion on the cost associated with this concept. The bottom line is, all of the numbers we have been hearing, when I watched floor debates, are not accurate.”
Besides, the intention of HB 1403, he said, is to save billions of dollars in potential water issues that could come up in the future. So the group is asking the governor to intervene.
“What we are requesting from Gov. Stitt is that he step in and make this happen,” Grimm-Bridgwater said. “It is not a huge financial burden to the state, especially when you look at the fact that this one bill could literally ensure the protection of billions of dollars of future water issues.”
Another bill the group has an issue with is Senate Bill 1003, authored by State Sen. Mark Allen whose District 4 includes Sequoyah and Le Flore counties. The bill is designed to encourage “voluntary compliance” with environmental regulations.
But the group fears this will simply empower companies to deal with environmental issues on their own, out of public view and without potential punishment.
“It would be kept secret from the public, kept out of them receiving any fines,” Grimm-Bridgwater said. “In essence, it would allow the very people who are polluting Oklahoma to get off scott free and not even have to tell Oklahoma citizens what exactly happened and what is going on.”
The group — which included the Sierra Club, Green Country Guardians, STIR, the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma and Trout Unlimited — will be following up with Stitt’s office to ensure the governor is aware of their requests, They also want Stitt to create a committee to oversee efforts to protect Oklahoma water.
Grimm-Bridgwater said he was proud to see the group includes conservationists, anglers, hunters and simply concerned citizens. But another group heavily involved is Native Americans, as Kingfisher — a member of the Cherokee tribe who still lives on her grandmother’s original land allotment — points out.
“As Cherokees, it’s not just a way of life,” Kingfisher said. “It is our religion. When we pray, we go to the water. In the mornings and for special occasions, we go to the water. So it’s not just a way of life; it’s a source of life, for drinking, tourism and playing. That’s important, and our kids deserve that, too. That’s why I’m speaking up.”