Grave sites at the Sardis Cemetery go back well into the 19th century and many of them are homemade.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

The fight over control of Sardis Lake and water across southeastern Oklahoma pits the state against Native American tribes. To the Choctaw and Chickasaw who live in the area today — and for the Caddo who preceded them — water isn’t just vital to life: It’s culturally sacred.


Oklahoma’s lakes drive millions of dollars of tourism to otherwise impoverished parts of the state. But the local economy around Sardis Lake is missing out because of uncertainty about the water’s future.
Allison Herrera / Invisible Nations

Oklahoma’s lakes drive millions of dollars of tourism to otherwise impoverished parts of the state. But the local economy around Sardis Lake is missing out because of uncertainty about the water’s future.


Pat Starbuck outside the Choctaw Nation Community Center in Talihina.
Allison Herrera / Invisible Nations

Sardis Lake, in southeastern Oklahoma, is at the heart of a battle between state and tribal governments over control of water. Debate has raged over whether to pipe to north Texas, Oklahoma City, or western Oklahoma ever since it was built in the early 1980s. Stuck in the middle are the people who call the Sardis area home.

Several miles down the rugged, potholed Savage Road, just past the western edge of Lake Sardis is a neighborhood in the middle of nowhere.

The city of Oklahoma City’s Chisholm Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant at Coffee Creek Road and N. Western Avenue in Edmond.
Brent Fuchs / The Journal Record

The company that agreed to pay a nearly $1 million fine for water problems in Hugo earlier this week could soon get a new contract. The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust Authority unanimously approved the proposed contract with Severn Trent Services on Tuesday.

The Journal Record’s Sarah Terry-Cobo reports Councilman Pete White, who sits on both bodies, said he’s convinced the problems in Hugo were an aberration, not a pattern:

Dustin Green, owner of 10 Acre Woods farm near Norman, feeds a few of his 400 or so chickens.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Will Oklahoma be more like Missouri or North Dakota?

In Missouri, Right-to-farm — a constitutional amendment that broadly protects the agricultural industry from future laws and regulations — was a contentious fight that pitted farmer against farmer and forced a recount of the statewide vote. But in North Dakota, Right-to-Farm passed by a 2-to-1 margin.

Corn, Okla., Mayor Barbara Nurnberg outside city hall in January 2016.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

It costs a lot of money to clean, transport and dispose of water. Big cities can spread the cost of multi-million dollar sewer or treatment projects across thousands of customers. But many small Oklahoma towns don’t have that option, and often rely on a state-funded grant program that’s being squeezed by budget cuts.


Crumbling Infrastructure

Tim Cross, chief operator of the water treatment plant in Chandler, Okla.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Many of the programs protecting Oklahoma’s air and land are paid for with fees and federal dollars. Oversight and inspection of local water systems, however, are funded by state revenue that has dwindled — and failed.

Chandler, a city of about 3,000 residents, like many small communities in Oklahoma, has struggled with deteriorating pipes and pumps, limited funding to make repairs and upgrades, and increasing demands to provide clean water to more and more customers.

Jet Stein with the OWRB's lake monitoring program prepares to test the water at Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Water contaminated by algae blooms or choked by sediment and pollutants kills wildlife and isn’t healthy for humans. It’s up to the state to make sure Oklahoma’s lakes and rivers are safe, but budget cuts are threatening that mission, officials say.

Water Funding Roller Coaster

The Hugo water treatment plant in July 2015.
Sarah Terry-Cobo / The Journal Record

The company that provides water services in Hugo says a customer doesn’t have standing to sue over water quality problems. Hugo resident Tara Lowrimore is suing Severn Trent Environmental Services for damages related to federal and state drinking water violations due to cloudiness and lack of chlorination.

In January 2015, drought stricken Waurika Lake was dangerously low.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

There’s a $1 billion hole in the state budget that has consequences for Oklahoma’s environment and natural resources. A controversial state question could pit farmer against farmer. The ground beneath Oklahoma is shaking — figuratively and literally in 2016 — and StateImpact is on it.

Chesapeake Energy employees leave buildings after layoffs were reported Sept. 29, 2015.
Brent Fuchs / Journal Record

The downturn in energy prices dominated the news cycle in Oklahoma in 2015, affecting the bottom line of every oil and natural gas producer, the state’s budget, and had countless trickle-down effects in a state with an economy so reliant on the energy sector.

The price plummet actually started in June 2014, when oil was still above $100 per barrel. They rapidly declined, beginning 2015 at around $55, and currently sit in the $30-40 range.

Gov. Mary Fallin speaking at the 2013 Governor's Energy Conference in Tulsa, Okla.
Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The 36th annual Oklahoma Governor’s Water Conference in Norman included the usual fare: updates on regional water plans, drought mitigation, and experts from other states sharing their water insights. But Gov. Mary Fallin came with a new idea to save water — and reduce earthquakes.

A dredging barge scrapes the bottom of Wuarika Lake and sends sludge to a holding pit via an underwater pipeline.
Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s lakes weren’t built to last forever. Over time, dirt and debris are slowly filling them in. Right now, there’s no good way to solve the problem, but cities that rely on Waurika Lake are turning to costly and complicated efforts to save their water supply from silt.

Suzette Grillot and Brian Hardzinski discuss Catalonia's push for independence from Spain, and Russia's "frozen zone" in the troubled region of eastern Ukraine.

Then Rebecca Cruise talks with Peter Lochery. He’s the Director of Water for the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, or CARE, and won the University of Oklahoma WaTER Center's 2015 Internaitonal Water Prize.

Peter Lochery delivering a talk at the University of Oklahoma in September 2015.
Jawanza Bassue / The University of Oklahoma

Earlier this year the University of Oklahoma’s Water Technologies for Emerging Regions (WaTER) Center awarded Peter Lochery its biennial International Water Prize for his contributions to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere.