Special Report: Dry Times - KSWO 7News | Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Special Report: Dry Times

LAWTON Okla_ Imagine going to the sink, turning on the faucet and nothing coming out. It might seem like an extreme situation, but the truth is, if cities don't do something soon, it could happen here in Southwest Oklahoma.

It's been over 50 years since we've experienced the extreme drought conditions we're in now, and we're finding out we aren't as prepared as we thought we were. With our rain totals already lagging behind last year's and our hottest months ahead, our state is looking at some of our driest times in history. So how will we weather this drought?

Drought has been proven to be the most devastating of all natural disasters. Without it, entire towns cease to exist. In Southwest Oklahoma, we are in our third year of a drought that has no end in sight. Lakes and ponds are drying up, and resources are stretched thin. It's an uncomfortable question, but one on everyone's mind: are we prepared?

Water is an integral part of our society. It affects everything from where we live to what we eat. Just ask Wheat Farmer Jimmy Kinder.

"Water is life," Kinder said. "Without water, nothing grows. Nothing can happen."

He said he's been feeling the effects of the drought for over three years. He's had to change his farming methods and focus on more drought resistant crops. If it continues, things will only get worse.

"Farmers are either going to have to sell their livestock, which many of them already have in the past couple of years, or many of them have the tough decision of hauling water," Kinder said.

As the months go by and weather gets warmer, we start to realize rural communities aren't the only ones being affected. If this current drought persists, it's on track to surpass both of the Great Oklahoma Droughts of the 1930s and 1950s.

So why didn't we do anything to improve our conditions? Well, we kind of did.

"We really did fundamentally change the way we farm," Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole said. "We went to larger production units. We did get into conservation. We did get into maintaining vegetation belts, and we did become much more sophisticated in our use of water."

The problem is: now, there are more of us. So, what's being done to ensure we don't run out of water? The answer comes in the form of three big initiatives, the first being improvements to infrastructure.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board put out an extensive report over the current condition of the water situation across the state, and they've made some interesting discoveries.

"The overall state-wide demand for water right now is a little over 2 million acre feet per year of water," said OWRB Executive Director J.D. Strong. "The resources that we have: the Ogalalla Aquifer alone has 80 million acre feet of water stored in it. So, that groundwater basin in the panhandle in Northwest Oklahoma can more-than-meet all the state's needs."

So what's the problem?

"Location, location, location," Strong said.

Farmers like Kinder and Experts like Strong have noticed for years now that we get rain, just not where we need it.

"We need some infrastructure, some water structures that will actually move the water from where we have it to where we need it," Kinder said. "Traditionally, that's from the east side of the state to the west side of the state."

So as part of their comprehensive water plan, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board is working on securing funding.

"One of the priority recommendations was State Question 764, which was on the ballot in November," Strong said. "Thankfully, the voters of Oklahoma approved that. That gives us the additional financial assistance capacity that we need in our programs to be able to finance those infrastructure projects."

Representative Tom Cole agrees: infrastructure would solve lots of problems, but he said another important component is science. There's already work being done.

"The Severe Storm Center for the country is located in this district," Cole said. "We recently established a long-term Climate Study Center located at the University of Oklahoma."

That center is leading the field in drought forecasting, so we can better understand when a drought will come, why it comes and when it might end.

One thing to keep in mind: all of these advances cost money. That means the cost of water will go up, which makes the cost of everything go up. So, Strong said the final magical component of this situation is relying on local governments to communicate to their citizens that conservation is a must.

"We hope, in our job, in some extent but to a greater extent, the local city water provider's job is to make sure that they try to plan for the worst," Strong said.

City of Lawton Public Works Director Jerry Ihler is on board with that idea.

"The citizens need to take a hard look at what they can do to conserve," Ihler said. "What are some of the things we can do?"

As part of OWRB's research, they realize now that if we don't change our conservation efforts, in 50 years, many parts of the state could be facing massive water shortages. The goal is to consume no more fresh water 50 years from now than we do today. That sounds difficult, but it can be met through some creativity.

Legislation recently passed the approval to re-use waste-water, or 'gray water', to water landscapes. It's something the City of Lawton has already implemented in some ways.

"You're going to see a lot more using of gray water, re-using water for treatment plant," Ihler said.

Looking to other states is also useful. With over half of the nation's counties being considered drought disaster areas, lots of places are getting creative. Sparks, Nevada has been under drought conditions for years and have managed to not only survive but thrive.

John Erwin, a planner in water development in the Sparks area said it's their proactive approach that keeps them afloat.

"We say use your water," Erwin said. "Use it appropriately, use it responsibly. Let's just not waste it. We just try to get that theme out constantly to our customers."

They conserve year round, even in the winter by recharging their aquifers with melted snow. Other places have given tax credits for things like Xeriscape Landscaping or water-saving toilets. These are incentives that drive people to save.

J.D. Strong said one thing they know for sure is it will rain again. So while the "now" seems crucial in terms of alleviating the drought problems, the "future" is even more important. As history shows us, droughts are a climate cycle. So, planning for the future drought will help us avoid having to survive it.

"We should not rest on our laurels and think that we can continue to weather these things without any proactive work," Strong said.

As of a recent report put out by the National Weather Service, they do predict conditions to get better for Southwest Oklahoma in the coming months for the first time since this drought cycle has started. Experts insist, though that we must stay vigilant in our research and continue to live as though our dry times will last forever.

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