Environmental Protection

Oklahoma Environmental Protection Agency

Oklahoma Water Resources Board project coordinator Jason Murphy takes water samples at the Canadian River east of Oklahoma City.Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

After months of deliberation and closed-door meetings, lawmakers in the Oklahoma House and Senate are poised to cut a deal to fill a $1.3 billion shortfall and fund government for 2017.

The $6.8 billion presumptive budget agreement has been praised for preserving money for education, prisons and Medicaid, but some of the sharpest cuts are aimed at agencies that regulate industry and protect the environment.

Outfitted in rubber waders on a frosty winter morning in the middle of nowhere, Jeanette Lamb with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission kicks up a pile of mud from the riverbed at Walnut Creek, along a farm in rural McClain County.

She stares deeply into the mud, searching for a light-brown critter whose big mandibles pack a punch.

State Senators Greg Treat, Clark Jolley and David Holt emerge from a Republican Caucus meeting after members agreed on a framework for a .8 million state budget.“That’s what I’m looking for, ” she says, before warning, “They bite. It’s a Dobsonfly larvae.”

The kinds of bugs she finds — or doesn’t find — says a lot about the health of this stream.

“They cannot tolerate pollution at all, ” she says. “They’re very sensitive.”

If Lamb finds something wrong, she’ll work with local landowners to identify the pollution source. She didn’t find any problems here during her inspection last winter, at least with the wildlife. But her agency’s budget situation is another story, according to the Conservation Commission’s Water Quality Manager, Shanon Phillips.

“[In] 2009 we had a staff of 40 people, ” Phillips said. “We now have a staff of 25. Future cuts would mean further reductions in staff.”

The Conservation Commission will likely receive a 9 percent cut, and the agency’s director Trey Lam says it already operates on a barebones budget.

Vance Pennington, a regional manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, inspects a chlorine treatment system at a water treatment plant in Chandler, Okla.“Currently 20 percent of the state’s Conservation Districts are sharing employees, including seven districts that have no staff, ” Lam says. “Our ability to protect our natural resources and maintain our flood control system is at risk.”

Regulatory reductions

Even steeper reductions are likely coming for other environmental and regulatory agencies. The Department of Mines and the Water Resources Board are on tap to have their state funding reduced by 12 percent.

“We will probably have to scale back our monitoring a little more, ” says OWRB executive director J.D. Strong.

The funding cuts will degrade the Water Board’s ability to monitor the health of lakes, rivers and streams, Strong says. The state’s water regulator will likely have to slash the amount of money available for its Rural Economic Action Plan program, which grants money to local water managers who need to make expensive fixes to their crumbling water systems. Strong says the REAP account will be cut by at least $400, 000.

“That will mean fewer grants that we’re able to provide to really small, rural communities across the state to help them improve wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, ” Strong says.

Small towns, big problems

The cuts could hurt other agency programs designed to fix water problems in small communities. The Department of Environmental Quality also faces a 12 percent reduction.

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