Wells and worries
Water supply •
Carrying armloads of survey equipment back to their U.S. Geological Survey pickup, parked on a dirt road in Delaware County, groundwater specialist Shana Mashburn and hydrology technician Emily Moyer paused before crossing a barbed wire fence.
After checking and doublechecking the water levels at an abandoned well — one of several monitored nonstop and doublechecked regularly for accuracy — Mashburn cringed a little at the notion that the five-year aquifer study they're doing on behalf of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board will answer all water worries voiced in recent months by northeastern Oklahoma residents.
“I kinda wish people would stop saying that,” she said.
While state and federal authorities are taking notice, a lack of data clearly is the crux of a problem for residents worried about water supply in the face of poultry farm expansions with millions of thirsty chickens added to the landscape.
The USGS study offers a glimmer of hope for future answers, but dozens of poultry operations are already built — most with two wells — and many have yet to go into production. Residents worry that once all the houses are operating at full capacity, the damage will be done before regulations can take shape.
The study, which began last year as part of an earlier plan set forth by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to study all aquifers in the state, is focused on the Boone and deeper Roubidoux aquifers. It will create models for the aquifers that show available supply and rates of recharge and flow and will create parameters
the board can consider when making future management decisions.
But what locals really want to know is what threat is posed by the poultry industry expansion. People with shallow wells and who have small streams or springs on their property have noticed reduced flows where water has been plentiful for decades — even in drought years — and they point to the one thing that has changed on the landscape in recent months that uses lots of water — chicken houses.
In the past 12 months Delaware County has become a main hub of broiler chicken production in Oklahoma, with 151 active permits for 748 houses with the potential to house more than 19.6 million chickens at any one time, according to Agriculture Department records. Some areas have concentrations of 40 to 50 chicken houses in a square mile.
A University of Arkansas study showed that 1,000 adult broiler chickens may require 90 to 100 gallons of water a day, or an average roughly 50 gallons a day over a 54-day production cycle. A typical operation with six 66-by600-foot houses may hold 280,000 birds, using millions of gallons of water annually.
“The study isn't designed to answer the specific questions (area residents are) asking right now about the poultry farming,” Mashburn said. “If you have a new farm down the road and you think it's impacting your well, it's not that kind of study.”
However, if someone wants to pursue that question in the future, the study will have created the tools to help solve those mysteries, she said.
“They don't have the data; we don't have the data; and it's a mess,” said Pam Kingfisher, organizer of Green Country Guardians, which has been representing concerned residents since June. “We're still worried about our future water supply, and with good reason.”
“Most people really don't know that much about their well if you ask them when it was drilled, how it was constructed, what the water level is usually,” Mashburn said.
But with outcry from residents the past several months, Kent Wilkins, Planning and Management Division chief for the Water Resources Board, made at least two field trips to visit with residents and inspect wells in Delaware and Adair counties. He will be back in the region on Dec. 16 for a 1:303:30 p.m. public meeting and workshop at the old school gym at Kansas.
Wilkins and OWRB staff met with residents who forwarded complaints. They also visited homes with new chicken operations nearby and collected baseline information on those wells for future reference.
One home, which was featured in recent news reports with E. coli contamination and sick children, had only an aluminum pan turned upside down functioning as a well cap and had at least one leak in the well casing.
“Anything can get in there,” Wilkins said, looking at the wellhead. “A mouse, a snake, any number of things that could be a source for E. coli. This is not a safe situation.”
Wilkins said education about well standards is important in rural areas where livestock roam and particularly in areas where manure may be used for fertilizer.
While the group found supply issues or collapses with shallow wells and found that some deeper wells had issues with water that had become smelly, neither well drillers nor the OWRB experts saw direct links to nearby poultry farms — but neither could they rule them out.
Could the issue simply be aged wells? Could it be that water use in the area has increased and greater up-and-down flux in the wells caused erosion that led to a cave-in? Might things have changed with earthquake activity?
“We have no data to suggest yea or nay,” Wilkins said. “Just looking at what I see statewide and from a quality perspective, there were issues dealing with maintenance and construction of the wells and some surface pollution. We definitely want to help people make sure their wells meet standards so surface contamination does not get into the wellhead.”
The old spring house at Three Springs Farm, near Oaks, exemplifies the issue. On Sept. 20 the spring was reported dry for the first time in 12 years under its current owners, although artifacts found at the site indicate that it may have been in use for centuries.
Wilkins said he could only speculate as to why the spring went dry. By late October, when he visited, it had rained and the spring had recovered to create a shallow pool but was nowhere near its normal flow.
The organic farm, operated by Emily Oakley and Mike Appel, irrigates its crops with water from a well not far from the spring.
With the summer of 2018 the 33rd driest in the region on record, it would seem possible that the water level in the spring would be affected more by use of that well than by an overarching issue caused by the area's poultry operations, the nearest of which is 1.5 miles away, Wilkins said. Still, he added, “there are things I can't explain.”
“There is nothing to prove it's related to (the irrigation well); it's just more likely, but let's continue to monitor it and see,” he said.
Oakley said the area was in extreme drought and experienced higher temperatures in 2011 and 2012. The crops required much more irrigation, and the spring flowed constantly during those years. This year temperatures were cooler; less irrigation was required; and the farm's high-efficiency drip lines were shut off completely at the end of August, three weeks before the spring dried up.
Observations by residents should be taken into account, she said.
“We all see, use and drink the water, and that is data because it's our daily lives,” she said. “We have observational data that this has never happened before. … I know as well as anyone you can't make a direct correlation between the chicken farms and our spring, but it also doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that something has changed.” their fair share — because it isn't the everyday, regular person.”
Ten legislators, including a host of freshmen, appeared at Friday's forum at Jenks' Dr. Kirby A. Lehman Center for the Study of Science and Mathematics.
Superintendent Stacey Butterfield thanked all legislators from last session for passing a statewide, $5,000 teacher raise, drawing a loud round of applause from the couple hundred educators, parents, business leaders and other concerned community members in attendance.
One question from the audience was how lawmakers intend to help Gov.-elect Kevin Stitt achieve his goal of raising Oklahoma from low
Kent Wilkins of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board talks with Pam Kingfisher of Green Country Guardians at the spring house at Three Springs Farm. KELLY BOSTIAN/Tulsa World