"People Should Be Worried": Combatting Norman's Water Problem

Mar 27, 2013

A growth in demand and decline in supply has made water the most valuable resource in Norman and perhaps even in the state. Legislators, city officials and scientists are working to create comprehensive plans to create water sustainability. Lake Thunderbird is a major water source for Norman and surrounding cities. Officials say if they don’t find a solution soon, water may become a scarce resource.

Lake Thunderbird takes its name from the Native American legend of a supernatural bird said to create thunder with its wings, and strike lighting from its beak.  Today many locals refer to it as “Lake Dirty Bird” because of its murky brown water, but if the current drought in Norman continues, they may simply refer to it as “Lake Dirt Bird.”

Credit 2011 Water Conservation Plan for the City of Norman

Like most of Oklahoma’s reservoirs, Lake Thunderbird is man-made. The lake’s origins can be traced back to studies initially dealing with flood control at Little River and water supply concerns for the surrounding areas. In 1953, Oklahoma City, Norman, Midwest City, Del City, Moore and Tinker Air Force Base made a request to the Bureau of Reclamation studies that they be included in studies for a reservoir project at a site downstream on Little River. Less than a decade later, the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District for Norman Project was created. The Lake Thunderbird reservoir was completed in 1965 as a municipal water source, but it wasn’t built to last forever.

“A confined body of water is going to fill up with sediment,” said Ken Komiske, Director of Utilities for the City of Norman. “And they do build reservoirs, or any man-made lake, with a 100 year life.”

Komiske explains that Lake Thunderbird is currently at its half-life, and the recent combination of low precipitation and high temperatures isn’t helping. He says that the lake is currently 7.5 feet lower than usual, mostly because of a three-year drought.

According to United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Thunderbird’s conservation pool (the amount of water devoted to public consumption) is at about 63 percent of capacity. The record low was in 2006, but if this drought continues, Komiske says we may meet and exceed that record, this season. 

“So much is depending on the weather and temperature,” said Komiske. “I mean if you get a warm day (even in the winter) people will start to mess around outside and plant things and water things or water their cars more often and stuff like that.”

“Norman also gets drinking water from well water, from wells that they have scattered throughout the county.” said Robert Puls, Director of Oklahoma Water Survey. “However, some of those wells have arsenic concentrations that exceed the maximum containment levels established by the EPA for drinking water. So a number of them have had to be shut down, which places more stress on the use of Lake Thunderbird.”

According to Puls, city and state officials are working with water agencies to address that problem.

“I think people are looking down the road in terms of how are we going to deal with this aging infrastructure,” Puls said. “What are we going to do for the future water needs for the state? There have been new reservoirs that have been created recently and there are plans for other ones.”

The City of Norman has been implementing a mandatory “Stage 2 Moderate” conservation measure since January 14 of this year. The conservation measure prohibits all outdoor watering or irrigation between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and requires even-odd watering. It also prohibits excess outside water, like washing buildings, paved areas and cars. 

“We as a culture and as a society waste an awful lot of water,” said Puls. “And we use fresh, treated, potable water for needs that really don’t require fresh treated water!”

Credit Source: American Water Works Association. (1999). Residential End Uses of Water

Norman’s average allocation of water from Lake Thunderbird is about 8 and half million gallons per day. According to the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District, Norman utilized more than 95 percent of its allocation from Lake Thunderbird in 2011. At the beginning of this year, the agency reduced Norman’s allocation by 10 percent.

Puls says residents can help alleviate Lake Thunderbird’s burden by conserving water indoors too.

“Power companies can use non-potable water for their needs for cooling tower and more are doing that,” Puls said. “So homeowners could also do that in terms of reducing their water usage. The biggest water usage in a home is the toilet. And so a lot of water could be saved from people moving to low flow toilets, low flush toilets.”

The city is currently considering the option of diverting treated wastewater into tributaries that would flow into Lake Thunderbird to augment the water supply. The action might help the problem, but there are environmental regulations and public concern to address.

“People tend to look unfavorably about the idea of reusing their own wastewater,” Puls said. “But a lot of the wastewater that is treated today is actually of fairly high quality. 

Puls says he is working with city officials to analyze the quality of water from Lake Thunderbird and compare it to treated wastewater to determine if reuse is a viable option. He says if the city does get permission to reuse water, it will do additional treatment of water above and beyond what they’re doing, but right now, Lake Thunderbird is still in trouble.

“People should be worried,” Puls said. “Because I don’t think there is going to be an easy solution; I think it’s going to take a lot of different efforts.”