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Addressing water supply issues in the Western Ozarks

Imagine this headline:

Taneycomo trout die as officials refuse to release water from Table Rock Lake

It’s not far-fetched. Something similar happened in the fall of 2011 below Lake Tenkiller, in the Ozarks of eastern Oklahoma, where low water levels resulting from the prolonged drought left that reservoir with no unallocated water. You can get an idea of the reactions from this article in the Sequoyah County Times.  All the water in Tenkiller was spoken for, and the trout fishery suffered.

What’s this about allocation of water? In reservoirs managed by the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, the reservoir storage capacity is allocated to various uses. For example, some of the storage capacity in Table Rock Lake is allocated to the Southwest Power Administration, a government agency that sells electricity to private and public utilities. In some reservoirs, some of the capacity is allocated to municipal water supplies or industrial users of water, such as Sequoyah Fuels, mentioned in the article about Lake Tenkiller. The Corps of Engineers is also obligated to store and release water to meet statutory mandates relating to maintenance of adequate water levels for barge traffic downstream. In the western United States, a “recreational allocation” is made to support the whitewater rafting industry.

Water scarcity is moving east, and the pace seems to be accelerating. Jim Milton’s blog, Oklahoma Water Law, does a great job covering water supply issues in Oklahoma and neighboring states. On his blog, you can read about Oklahoma’s proposed comprehensive water plan and conflicts between rural water districts and municipalities, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding Oklahoma’s statutes prohibiting the export of water to another state, and the fight over water in Sardis Lake, where Oklahoma City’s attempt to buy the water has been blocked, at least for now, by the assertion of federal power. In reviewing recent blog entries, I was struck by the intensity of the water disputes in eastern Oklahoma and Kansas; Missourians need to pay attention to what is occurring just over the state line.

The Tri-State Water Resource Coalition has been exploring the alternatives for future water supplies for the Western Ozarks. Its annual conference, Securing Our Water Future, will be held in Springfield on November 17 and 18. I’ ll be giving a short presentation at this conference to contrast Missouri’s lack of any allocation system with the ways that surface water and groundwater are allocated in Kansas and Oklahoma. A copy of the text of my presentation is here.

Missouri and Arkansas have had the luxury of pretending that water is free. Unfortunately, the supply is finite. The Tri-State Water Resource Coalition is providing leadership and a forum for discussion. We need wise leaders to learn from the experiences of Kansas and Oklahoma, so that we can be better stewards of the water we all need.


About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer and mediator who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, nonprofits, and local government. As of 2022, I'm shrinking my legal practice so that I have more time to mediate real estate disputes. I'm happy to mediate using video platforms like Zoom and WebEx, or in person anywhere in Missouri.

2 responses »

  1. Good info here. Long time reader, first time poster….keep it up please!

  2. I started railing about the potential for water shortages in the Ozarks fifteen years ago, and nobody ( and I mean NOBODY ) cared, so I gave up and haven’t breathed a word since. There are a few wonkish people out there who are now forseeing a potential future problem, but absolutely no structure of any potential solution. We are the bacteria in Albert Bartlett’s coke bottle approaching a couple of minutes to noon. Despite a few seminars, the public is generally unaware of the problem, and even if you were to somehow be able to ‘inform’ people, they don’t want to hear about it. They want water to come out of their water faucet, and they will probably get it, but building a new house producing new water demand will be where .

    It is beginning to look like certain forward looking towns are probably going to try to act to secure water supplies or water rights, and the allocation of water resources is probably going to be a matter of political influence in the legislature which is pretty much permanently out to lunch. Right now that looks like certain counties and certain municipalities. We may be approaching an era where further small scale development scattered in the countryside in the Ozarks will be outlawed in favor of tightly municipally controlled denser development in the towns.

    The Ozarks of fifty or a hundred years in the future could look significantly different than what any of us imagine-probably more like Arabia than New England-all a function of law and political influence and not of geography.

    There are some futurists that are predicting that some of the biggest wars in the future will be shrouded in religion, nationalism, or whatever, but will be over water, just as those of today are about energy. Some of the richest people in the world are out there buying local water companies, not oil companies, and those in the know are lobbying for position on water resources. What is happening in the American west is a preview of what will be happening here in about twenty or thirty years, if not sooner. In that same timeframe, we may see China enter a famine as their main aquifer is pumped dry from their newly industrialized agricultural system.

    Water is THE issue of the future, and almost nobody knows it.


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