Wells and wor­ries

Wa­ter sup­ply •

Tulsa World - - Front Page - By Kelly Bos­tian

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

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