Save the Illinois River, Inc.
24369 E 757 Rd.
Tahlequah, OK 74464-1949
(918) 284-9440

Illinois River Instream Flow Meeting

STIR | News | June 28, 2019

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OWRB Meeting June 27 with Instream Flow Advisory Group (STIR Photo)

NOTE PLEASE:  This article was edited on 7/2/19 to clarify that water shortages will occur in the event of drought if instream flow (ISF) is not addressed by Oklahoma.



    Oklahoma City--Projections show that, if there is a drought, enough water won’t always be available for recreation and for other uses of the Illinois River by 2060.  The revelation came Thursday, June 27 at a meeting of Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) officials and the board’s Instream Flow Advisory Group.  Findings of the Upper Illinois River Instream Flow Pilot Study were presented during the six-hour meeting in Oklahoma City.  The study was launched in 2014.  

Instream flow is described by the OWRB as “Flows necessary to provide for a healthy ecosystem and support water-related recreation (such as fishing, hunting, swimming, and boating) as well as tourism.”

    Left on table were major questions about the impact of climate change on river flow and how future studies will be funded.  The rapid expansion of poultry farms in northeastern Oklahoma was also not considered because it had not occurred yet.  The basin includes the Illinois River, Barren Fork Creek and Flint Creek which are all designated Oklahoma Scenic Rivers. 

    Members of the group include representatives of industry, the environment and conservation organizations, farmers and government agencies who heard OWRB Executive Director Julie Cunningham call the issue of instream flow “complex and controversial.”  Efforts last legislative session to adopt an instream flow law for Oklahoma rivers barely survived challenges from groups including the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and hopefully will be considered in 2020.  Attending Thursday’s meeting was Senator David Bullard of Durant who authored one of the measures.

    John P. Rehring, an engineer with the Carollo Corporation of Broomfield, Colorado, said that demands for water will exceed stream flow according to the data and shortages of water not only for recreation and agriculture but also for municipal water users are projected.“

    "The pilot study found that by 2060, there will be times during drought where flows in the upper Illinois River will be unable to simultaneously support consumptive users’ full surface water demands and meet target instream flow ranges for habitat and recreation,” Rehring told Save the Illinois River.

    Rehring’s company looked at data from the 2012 update of the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan as well as stakeholder input from public meetings.  Drought would be one of the reasons for shortages.  To address the challenge, Rehring said the study examined four mechanisms to prevent water shortages including a numeric instream flow rule, voluntary efforts, monitoring for adaptive management and taking no action.

    A 2017 study identified an optimal range of flow for upper Illinois River recreation as 400-1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs).  A minimum of 150 cfs was recommended for canoeing and kayaking and a 250 cfs minimum was recommended for rafting.  The Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) said, based on 83-years of records, the median flow of the Illinois River at Tahlequah is 489 cfs.  High flows recently exceeded 2,480 cfs.

    Projected demand for crop irrigation in 2060 is estimated at 2,800-acre feet per Year (AFY).  Livestock are projected to require 300 AFY, municipal and industrial 14,100 AFY and self-supplied residential 8,100 AFY.  Total projected demand is 25,300 AFY, 10,900 AFY greater than in 2007.

    One of the complex issues that must be addressed in any instream flow protection is that of existing state water use permits.  Are those permits grandfathered or should they be non transferable in order to insure enough water for consumptive and non-consumptive uses?A non-consumptive use includes the water necessary for fish and wildlife and for stream water quality.Funding for future studies of water resources also is major problem according to OWRB officials.  What river basins will be selected for instream flow protection, who will select those basins and gaining stakeholder’s input also are important issues.  Climate change was not factored into the pilot study of the upper Illinois River Basin.

    Robert Jackman of Tulsa, a geologist, told the group that the study is not adequate since it did not include the impact of over 200 new or expanding poultry farms.  Residents near new poultry houses in Delaware and Adair Counties have complained to the OWRB about water wells for chicken houses drilled without a scientific study of the available water in the aquifers.

   “You have only half the picture,” Jackman said.  “You can’t give us a good picture of the relationship of the aquifer and CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) without a geological investigation,” he said.  Jackman said the research did not include a hydrologist which he called “a major omission”. 

No date for a future meeting of the advisory committee was immediately announced.