Nearly 4 million people call Oklahoma home, and all of them need water to survive.
With more miles of shoreline than the combined coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, it would be easy to assume Oklahoma has plenty of the precious natural resource.
"There's a saying out there that there's no cheaper water than the water you have right now," said Kevin Wagner, director of Oklahoma State University's Water Resources Center. "If we can work to conserve water and better use the water we have, then that's going to be the cheapest way for us to meet our future needs."
The bad news, however, is many people neither know the source of their water, nor use it to its highest capabilities.
"Research has shown a strong correlation between awareness of water sources and the level of conservation," Wagner said. "This really demonstrates the importance of education and outreach programs. Unfortunately, all too often it takes an extreme event such as a drought, flood or infrastructure failure to make people aware of water resources, our dependency on them and the effects human actions have on them."
Since establishment in 1965, the Water Center has been tasked with planning, facilitating and conducting research to help resolve state and regional water problems, along with application of research results and new technology to wider audiences.
Housed in OSU's Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the Water Center is supported by more than 80 faculty members from 11 academic departments across campus and enlists the help of 24 state, federal, tribal and private organizations through its Water Research Advisory Board, which sets priorities and selects projects for funding.
While there are four water research institutes and centers in Oklahoma, the tools to distribute research-based information to the masses is specific to the OSU Water Resources Center.
"Only our Water Center has that connection to the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service," Wagner said. "Other Oklahoma universities can and are doing great research, but we have that delivery mechanism to get that information out to the public, out to the citizens, out to the communities across the state."
The Water Center's goals closely align with the mission of OSU, a land-grant university tasked with conducting research and sharing its findings with the people throughout the state who could use it to better their lives. The ability to spread the word about best water conservation practices makes a profound impact throughout the vast diversity of Oklahoma's landscape and climate.
Farmers use irrigation systems to add moisture to crops, and in Oklahoma, agricultural irrigation is the top water user in the state, which is why the Water Center sponsors the Oklahoma Irrigation Conference each spring.
Saleh Taghvaeian, OSU Cooperative Extension water resources specialist, said producers should think of the conference as "one-stop shopping" where they can receive the latest research-based insights and information about many irrigation-related subjects.
"Water is among the most important and in-demand resources in any state," he said. "That means informed decision-making is a must for agricultural producers. Participants not only have an opportunity to hear and interact with some of the region's top experts but also to compare notes with other producers who may be in a situation similar to their own."
Another irrigation project sponsored by the Water Center focuses on slowing the depletion of resources from the Ogallala Aquifer. One of the world's largest aquifers, spanning approximately 174,000 square miles in portions of eight states, the overall water level has dropped by 36 million acre-feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Ogallala Aquifer is a vital resource for the economy of the Panhandle.
"Oklahoma represents a small portion of what the aquifer serves," said Jason Warren, OSU Cooperative Extension soil and water conservation specialist. "However, the Ogallala does contribute to the productivity of 25 percent of Oklahoma's agricultural receipts, serving Beaver, Texas and Cimarron counties."
Most of the cropland in those three major agricultural-producing counties is irrigated. Part of Warren's research is to find out how long this area can continue to be irrigated, rather than being converted to dry land production, which means growing crops without the use of additional water.
At 86 percent, agricultural irrigation is the primary use of water in the region, used to produce a variety of crops, primarily corn.
The study is designed to find out how different irrigation methods impact how well crops use water and if the amount of crops produced is affected. Farmers can use this information to help make good decisions for their specific operations.
While irrigation is the major player in the water conservation game, the Water Center focuses on research about water quality, as well.
The septic system often goes unnoticed until something goes wrong. Then, when there is a problem, little understanding of how the system actually operates magnifies the issue.
With only about 20 percent of houses in the United States having septic systems, Oklahoma's percentage of nearly 40 makes knowing how to install and maintain these systems critical. These numbers indicate a considerable amount of wastewater produced in the state has to be treated by homeowners.
"Because most components of the system are underground, people often are not aware of how they work and how they should be maintained," said Sergio Abit, OSU Extension onsite wastewater treatment specialist. "Problems arise if these systems are improperly installed and/or if they are improperly maintained. In a state that has a lot of septic systems, it's very important that installers and state regulators are well-trained and the homeowners are well informed."
With that as a backdrop, Extension provided the funding through a grant administered by the Water Center to construct an Onsite Wastewater Treatment Training Facility. Located at the Botanic Garden at OSU in Stillwater, the facility displays some of the most popular systems.
"The facility is the first of its kind in Oklahoma," Abit said. "Having above-ground mockups of various systems gives trainees and the public opportunities to actually see these systems, gain some idea of how they work and hopefully realize the importance of having them properly maintained."
In addition to water quality or water conservation, the Oklahoma Water Resources Center is dedicated to working with university and agency researchers across the state on a variety of water-related topics to find solutions to Oklahoma's water concerns.
- By Sean Hubbard