A bill working its way through the Oklahoma House of Representatives would authorize the Grand River Dam Authority to evaluate the possibility of selling water to cities in Missouri.
The measure, House Bill 4127, authored by state Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, would amend state law governing GRDA’s operations, allowing it to "conduct a study on the sale of the waters under its control to the state of Missouri.”
Current state regulations prohibit GRDA from selling water to municipalities outside of Oklahoma. The GRDA does sell water to approximately 50 communities and organizations within the state.
Missouri American officials, in the early stages of building a reservoir to store water for Joplin, said they have not asked for the measure.
The Tri-State Water Resource Coalition also has not asked for the measure, although it has explored the possibility of getting water from Grand Lake in the past. The coalition represents a number of communities in Southwest Missouri, including Joplin, Carthage, Monett, Mount Vernon, Springfield and Branson, as well as Jasper County.
"From our perspective, it would be a valuable additional water source," Gail Melgren, executive director, said this week after learning of the bill. "We do touch base with them periodically. In the past, we've talked with the GRDA and gotten the impression that from the Oklahoma side of things that would be a really tough lift to make that happen."
'I like the idea'
GRDA CEO and President Dan Sullivan said this week that he became aware of Roberts' bill when the two spoke at an event earlier this month.
Sullivan said neither he nor other GRDA officials asked Roberts for the bill.
“I like the idea, but we didn’t ask for it,” he added.
However, he said, the idea of selling water to Missouri communities is not new. Sullivan said the issue emerged several years ago, but the idea was not directly discussed with any government officials in Southwest Missouri.
Instead, he said, it most likely took place when Joplin officials began exploring ways to increase their water supply.
Sullivan believes Roberts' bill would give GRDA officials an opportunity to take a look at the issue and see what needs might be met through the sale of water.
“It would give us an opportunity to revisit the moratorium,” Sullivan said, adding that no official from Joplin has made a specific request for water, to the best of his knowledge.
“I told (Roberts) it sounds like something we could support,” Sullivan said. “It sounds like something to consider for the long-range discussion.”
House Majority Leader Josh West, R-Grove, whose district includes Grand Lake, said he is aware of Roberts’ bill but has yet to speak directly with him or with Sullivan about the proposal.
During the opening weeks of the session, West said he typically focuses on bills that come before his specific committees. West said he will take a deeper look at the measure should it pass out of the assigned committee and get scheduled for consideration on the House floor.
Roberts said he filed the bill after talking with people from GRDA in the past about selling water to Southwest Missouri, primarily Joplin. He described the conversations as casual and said last week that he could not recall with whom he spoke about the issue.
Roberts’ bill was filed on Jan. 17. It had its second reading on Feb. 4 and is currently pending within the House Rules Committee. Because the bill is not one of Roberts’ top eight pieces of legislation this year, he said he does not see it advancing from the committee level.
“I wanted to get this out there so we could look at it in the future,” Roberts said. “I wanted to get the idea out there and get it filed before the legislative deadline in case we needed to look at it later.
“Sometimes you file a bill and then transfer it to someone else; I would be happy to transfer it to someone from that area who would want it.”
He said allowing the GRDA to sell water out of state could be a win-win. Roberts said the money raised through the sale could be designated to help prop up Oklahoma’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.
“Several small towns in Oklahoma and larger metro areas have infrastructure which is over 100 years old, from water to sewer lines, especially in rural Oklahoma,” Roberts said. “Hopefully we could designate any money received from this to those projects.”
Roberts said questions about the issue could be addressed through a potential study, adding he has yet to discuss the legislation with any one from the Grand Lake region.
He compared this study with others conducted in the past 20 years that explored selling water to Texas. In past discussions, Oklahoma lawmakers declined to approve selling water out of state.
“At the end of the day, this could help us get revenue and fix infrastructure problems we have now and in the future,” Roberts added.
"It’s important to study something like this before we put it into action so we can make sure it doesn’t have any negative impact on Grand Lake or the area itself," he said.
Melgren, with the Tri-State Water Resource Coalition, said the nonprofit was created in 2003 to "secure adequate, affordable water supplies for the next generation in Southwest Missouri."
More than 800,000 people live in the 16-county area served by the coalition, she said.
While Joplin and a handful of communities have access to surface water, most communities in the region rely on ground water and wells.
Regardless of the source, the water supply is vulnerable to challenges in the region, according to the group.
One is growth, as Southwest Missouri contains many of the fastest-growing communities in the state, and that growth is expected to continue. Others are long-term droughts and the stability of the underground aquifer.
"The drought of the ’50s, if it hit again, is what we have to plan for," Melgren said.
Believing that water would not be available from Oklahoma, the coalition has spent its time looking at options for Southwest Missouri.
"Stockton Lake has risen to the top as a preferred alternative," Melgren said.
A U.S Army Corps of Engineers study that will evaluate whether additional water can be drawn from Stockton Lake to meet local demand could be completed later this year, at which point a decision on whether to allocate the water would need approval from officials in Washington, D.C.
The group has asked the corps to study the possibility of allocating up to 39 million gallons of water per day from Stockton Lake to meet demand in the region. If approved, the overall cost, including infrastructure to pipe the water, could reach $1 billion, spread out among many participating communities over decades.
The current push focuses on Stockton Lake, although Pomme de Terre and Table Rock Lake also are options the group is exploring.
The Stockton Lake request was made in 2007. Federal funding for the study was received between 2014 and 2018, and nonfederal funds were received this year, he said.
"We are hopeful our reallocation request will be completed by the end of the year, at which point it will move to a federal level," Melgren said.
As for Grand Lake, she added: "If that did become a possible water resource, we would certainly look at that with great interest. We are interested in all available, affordable water supplies. For us, the state line is maybe not as important as it is for Oklahoma."
Christie Barnhart, spokesperson for Missouri American, which provides drinking water to Joplin and other communities in the region, said last week, "We have not as a company reached out to them."
The utility is in the process of getting a permit to build a 1,500-acre reservoir south of Joplin to store water for future use, using Shoal Creek as the source of the water.
Whatever happens in Oklahoma, Barnhart said it would not negate the need for a reservoir in the region because the company will still need a place to store water locally, regardless of the source.
The Grand River Dam Authority is a nonprofit state agency created 85 years ago to build dams along the Grand River, which is formed by the Neosho and Spring rivers. The GRDA does not receive funds appropriated by the Oklahoma Legislature. Rather it is fully funded through the sale of electricity and water.
Based in Vinita, GRDA’s operations include Grand Lake and Lake Hudson, both of which provide hydroelectric power, a power plant in Choteau, and interests in additional gas-powered plants and wind farms. GRDA officials operate their own police force and oversee more than 70,000 surface acres of water within the region.
Some of the 50 organizations or municipalities that receive water from GRDA sources — including the city of Grove — were grandfathered in when Grand Lake was created.
Sullivan said before a discussion concerning the sale of water takes place, GRDA officials need to complete a more than two-year project with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which is taking a comprehensive look at the water allocations already in place within GRDA’s jurisdiction.
Sullivan said if resources are available, he would be open to selling water to Southwest Missouri.
Because Joplin and some other communities are within the Grand Lake watershed, Sullivan said water sold to Joplin would then be returned to the same basin through the water treatment process.
“We always believe people won’t foul their own nest,” Sullivan said. “If they are dredging water out of a source, they will be watching what goes into it. It adds another incentive for people upstream in the watershed to continue to do the right thing.”
Drawing lake water
The sale of water typically includes a 50-year contract. This, Sullivan said, is because the municipalities or rural water districts that draw water from Grand Lake or Lake Hudson must establish intake operations and transportation infrastructure to route the water to their locals.
For example, the city of Grove has an intake near Honey Creek State Park. The city of Tulsa has an intake on Lake Hudson. Each intake has a meter that helps officials ensure the community takes only allocated water. It also helps GRDA officials assess charges and fees.
Water rates vary depending on where the resource is drawn and the amount of investment GRDA has made within that reservoir. Water pulled from Grand Lake typically costs between 10 and 11 cents per 1,000 gallons.
For now, Sullivan said it is important to know what long-term demands will be on for the water.
“We want to make sure we can adequately supply/fulfill the contracts we currently have,” Sullivan said. “The last thing we want to do is enter into an agreement with any entity to sell water that we don’t have.
“We don’t want want to commit to the edge of what we think we have,” he added. “We need to leave a cushion for growth. We need to have adequate supplies before making long-term commitments.”