Oklahoma likely will face increased pressure on water resources within the next 50 years, placing a significant burden on the state’s agriculture and other industries to find ways to manage the essential resource more efficiently.

“The challenge is determining how to deal with water issues and identifying how long we can maintain a plentiful supply,” said Larry Sanders, Oklahoma Extension economist for public policy.

Sanders, addressing the Rural Economic Outlook Conference on the Oklahoma State University Stillwater campus, said a water board has been evaluating the problem for several years and will present a plan to the state legislature in late 2011 or 2012. “This is a five-year process.”

Protect ag interests

Other states have followed similar procedures in developing water use plans and in most of those, “… agriculture has lost. We have cautioned the board about that. Access to water is essential for agriculture to remain sustainable in Oklahoma, and agriculture is essential to Oklahoma’s rural and urban economies.”

Agriculture provides a $28 billion total benefit to the Oklahoma economy.

Farming and ranching also play crucial roles in water conservation, maintaining clean water, clean air and wildlife habitat. “To keep those, we have to maintain a profitable agricultural economy.”

Water resources have been adequate to supply the state’s varied needs, but Sanders cautioned conference participants that increased demand and uncertain weather patterns could jeopardize supply.

“Average rainfall for Oklahoma has averaged 34 inches per year for the last 100 years,” he said. But the last 20 years of the 20th century may have been an aberration instead of a new norm for increased rainfall.

Normal weather cycle

Climate for those two decades consisted of “wet years. Our ancestors knew that Oklahoma experienced drought cycles every five to 10 years. For the last 10 years, we have been moving back to a more normal pattern of change and away from wet years.”

He said most of the land in Oklahoma receives and manages annual rainfall first. “Ag land is the first recipient, the first user and the first manager of precipitation. Everywhere else relies on agriculture to manage the ecosystems.

“We rely on agriculture practices to conserve water. We are able to improve stream flow and underground recharge with sound agriculture practices.”

Farming and ranching account for almost half of the state’s water use — irrigation takes about 40 percent and livestock 5 percent. Industry takes 33 percent energy accounts for 14 percent.

“All state users are expected to want more water in the future,” Sanders said.

Some areas will hurt more than others if water becomes scarce. West central Oklahoma, where irrigation use is heavy, may be hardest hit, Sanders said. “But we likely will see deficits across the state in the next 50 years.”

He said one concern is that a lot of ground and surface water flows out of Oklahoma “into other states without reimbursement. Allocation is a problem. We need to get water when we need it and where we need it and at a price we are willing to pay. That’s at the center of the water plan.”

Water use in Oklahoma has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. “It will change more in the next 50 years.”

The water use plan will incorporate numerous strategies to conserve and improve water supplies. Options include conservation, more efficient irrigation systems, crop rotation, new structures to hold water and improvements in the infrastructure, among other possibilities.

“We need to develop research programs, as well,” Sanders said.