Courtesy Chickasaw Nation
The beautiful Lincoln Bridge spans Travertine Creek in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area near Sulphur.

Chickasaw Drought Resiliency Project Focuses on Arbuckle Region

Chickasaw Nation

A regional task force is developing a plan to alleviate the effects of drought on more than 140,000 people throughout south-central Oklahoma who depend on the waters of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer.

Shortly after the exceptional drought that gripped the region from 2010 to 2015, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations joined with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to organize the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) task force. The task force is focused on strategies for alleviating the effects of future drought events on municipalities, rural water districts, and others who depend on the aquifer.

“The recent drought reminded us, yet again, of how critical water is to our communities and economy and demonstrated, again, how vulnerable water shortages can leave us,” says Kara Berst, Executive Officer of Environmental Health and Safety, part of the Chickasaw Nation’s leadership team on water planning efforts. “Governor Anoatubby has directed us to do what we can to make sure we are serving, both through action and leadership, as the best stewards of the resource for the benefit of our communities today and tomorrow.”

At its first official work session on January 26 in Ada, the group approved a work plan that will serve as a blueprint for activities over the next 16 months. Reclamation and the Nations are each contributing to the multi-year planning initiative and will facilitate the stakeholder-driven efforts to develop strategies for identifying and mitigating the region’s primary drought vulnerabilities and strengthening water supply reliability.

The DCP is part of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations’ work on long-term regional water planning for their shared treaty territory, which encompasses all or part of 22 counties in south-central and southeastern Oklahoma. Berst and Stephen Greetham, the Chickasaw Nation’s lawyer on water issues, work closely with Tye Baker and Brian McClain of the Choctaw Nation to coordinate these efforts.

The Chickasaw Nation supplemented its water plan team this month when Kris Patton, long-time manager of the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, joined as the senior manager for water policy and planning. In his new position, Patton will work on implementation of the Arbuckle-Simpson DCP and help direct and develop long-term water plan initiatives aimed at assessing current and future water needs, recommending management and policy reforms, and analyzing the condition of water infrastructure.

“My duties at the wildlife refuge were land management–based actions encompassed within a 16,000 acre parcel of land,” said Patton. “My new position will expand that focus to the sound and long-term stewardship of the water resources that are so crucial to our economy, our environment, and the culture of our region and state.”

Duane Smith, a water planning consultant and former executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board who works closely on these efforts with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations, indicated that the DCP Task Force will concentrate on five major cooperative tasks:

•  development of a comprehensive drought monitoring system

•  identification of vulnerabilities, especially related to water providers and agricultural  producers in the region

•  development of long-term mitigation strategies, such as infrastructure improvements to strengthen the region’s general water reliability

•  development of shorter-term response actions, such as water curtailment and conservation

•  establishing a framework to facilitate DCP implementation.

“While much of our work will be centered on water supply, including its vital link to the region’s growing tourism and recreation industry and vital environmental and fish and wildlife interests, our goal is to maintain and strengthen our region’s economic viability,” Smith emphasized. “Reliable water and drought protection are primary determinants of a strong economy, and are the focus here.”

The Task Force consists of entities that provide municipal and industrial supply to the Arbuckle-Simpson region, including Ada, Sulphur, Tishomingo, Roff, Durant, Mill Creek, Arbuckle Master Conservancy District and Murray County Rural Water District RWD No. 1.

The group will also receive direct input from its advisory members who represent a wide variety of water-related regulators and interests, including the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service (Chickasaw National Recreation Area), Nature Conservancy, South Central Climate Science Center, East Central University, Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Climate Hub and Rural Development.

Financial and technical assistance for the project is enabled through the Emergency Drought Relief Act of 1991 as part of a federal initiative to increase the United States' overall drought resiliency. The Arbuckle-Simpson project is one of 11—including two in Oklahoma (the second is at Foss Reservoir)—approved nationwide in August 2015.

The final draft of the DCP is scheduled for completion in May 2017. For more information on the Arbuckle-Simpson Drought Contingency Plan, contact Wayne Kellogg, with the Chickasaw Nation, at 580-272-5076.

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