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Thursday, May 2, 2013

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Water worries spilling over: Rural lawmakers question cultural center, OKC withdrawals
By M. Scott Carter
Oklahoma City / Capitol bureau reporter. Contact: 405-278-2838scott.carter@journalrecord.com, @JRMScottCarter.
Posted: 06:20 PM Tuesday, April 30, 2013
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The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum under construction. As of June 2012, the center was at an estimated 50-percent completion. (Photo by Brent Fuchs)
OKLAHOMA CITY – The fate of Oklahoma City’s unfinished $80 million American Indian Cultural Center and Museum may depend not on private funds so much as rural water.
While officials from the cultural center continue to push hard for state funding for the struggling project, a behind-the-scenes effort at the Legislature to secure a $20 million appropriation for the center this year is facing mounting opposition from some rural lawmakers who are frustrated with what they call Oklahoma City’s heavy-handed approach to water policy.
The center has sat unfinished after legislation that would have authorized $40 million in state bond funds failed by a single vote in May 2012. Since then new members have been named to the center’s governing board and new fundraisers are being sought.
However, even with those efforts, lawmakers in rural Oklahoma said the attitude toward Oklahoma City has turned negative because of Oklahoma City’s approach to water policy – specifically in southeastern and western Oklahoma.
With the margin of support for the cultural center razor-thin, the loss of even a few votes could stop the proposal cold.
“I’ve heard several rural legislators say: ‘Why should we help Oklahoma City with their economic development efforts when they aren’t willing to help us with ours?’”, said state Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City. “That’s the problem we’re trying hard to address.”
Loveless, who authored a Senate joint resolution to fund the cultural center, said he understands the concerns of both sides. He said he’s working with rural lawmakers and Oklahoma City officials in an effort to bring both sides together.
“We’re working to get everyone together and discuss the issues,” he said. “I think it’s better whenever everyone sits down and talks.”
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said he has a meeting planned with several rural legislators on Wednesday. Cornett said he wanted to hear the lawmakers’ concerns.
“I’m just going to listen,” he said. “If they have questions about our water policy, we’re willing to talk to them.”
Lawmakers from the state’s rural areas said residents of their districts have been frightened by Oklahoma City’s battles over water in southeastern and western Oklahoma.
“Yes, you could say there are big concerns,” said state Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward. “Many residents in my district are worried by how water was taken out of Canton Lake.”
In January, the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust said it needed extra water because of drought conditions and tapped thousands of gallons from Canton Lake in western Oklahoma. Oklahoma City has owned the water storage rights to the lake since the 1950s.
At the time city officials announced their plans, Marlatt and other lawmakers issued a media statement asking city officials to delay drawing the effort until later in the spring because they feared the draw on Canton Lake would devastate the lake and the businesses surrounding it.
“What we feared would happened, happened,” Marlatt said. “We understand they owned the rights to the water, but we were just asking them to delay the release until after we saw what type of spring rains we would get.”
Oklahoma City, he said, went ahead and tapped the lake. A short time later, the metro area saw heavy rains that raised the water level at Lake Hefner, but missed Canton Lake.
“They got rains here that raised Hefner’s lake level,” Marlatt said. “But we didn’t get rains in western Oklahoma, and Canton is way down.”
Cornett defended the city’s tapping of the lake. He said the city has owned the water storage rights to the lake for decades and has a very sophisticated water system.
“We rely on them heavily for service to our customers,” he said.
Cornett said the city had also announced it was willing to contribute $9 million to help fund the cultural center.
“We’re willing to contribute $9 million to help fund a state agency,” he said. “I’d think they’d (state lawmakers) would be grateful.”
Marlatt said he didn’t want to disrupt talks between rural lawmakers and Oklahoma City officials, but the discussions between both sides would probably continue.
“I expect there will be heated, passionate discussions for a long time to come,” he said.
Other legislators from the area echoed agreed. State Rep. Jeff Hickman, R-Dacoma, said the issue of water policy and out-of-basin water transfers is now a major topic of discussion across rural Oklahoma. At Canton, he said, the lake level is so low there is no more water for Oklahoma City to take.
“Unless Canton gets more rain, there is nothing else to send,” Hickman said. “They’ve taken it all. The water’s gone. There’s nothing else.”
Hickman said rural lawmakers have made economic development projects across the state a priority. In his district, he said, Canton Lake is a key part of the area’s economic development.
“People come to the lake, then go buy supplies and gas and go out to eat,” he said. “All that is economic development; tourism money coming to the area. But that can’t work when they take almost all the water out of the lake. It’s frustrating when I drive by Lake Hefner and see sailboats there and when I go back home and then see the dry lake bed at Canton,” he said.
For Hickman, the rural-urban fight over water is a bigger issue than out-of-state water sales.
“I am a lot more concerned about Oklahoma City’s use of our water than I am Texas,” he said. “Texas is at least willing to pay us.”

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