| November 7, 2013

Board votes to restrict Oklahomans’ private-property rights

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board recently ruled to restrict the property rights of landowners in five southern Oklahoma counties by mandating a 10-fold reduction in amount of water that can be withdrawn from the Arbuckle-Simpson Groundwater Basin. The Board reduced the maximum annual yield (the total amount of fresh groundwater that can be withdrawn while allowing a minimum 20-year life of the basin) from 2 to 0.2 feet per acre of land overlaying the basin per year.

Groups such as the Oklahoma Farm Bureau (OKFB) are disappointed with the ruling. They write:

"When a landowner purchases property he’s virtually purchasing a bundle of sticks or a bundle of private property rights," said LeeAnna Covington, director of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Legal Foundation. "Each time a decision of this magnitude is made, it removes a stick from the originally purchased bundle."

After several years of litigation concerning water usage in the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, landowners in the area are still unsure how the .2 acre feet measurement was determined. "I'm disappointed in this decision. When I purchased my property, I never thought this would have occurred," said Pontotoc County Farm Bureau member Charles Morrow. "I don't understand how the .2 acre feet restriction was calculated, and I feel like it's an arbitrary number."

John Collison, OKFB vice president of public policy, said what began as a plan to restrict the Oklahoma City metro area's usage of water from the Arbuckle-Simpson became an environmentalist overreach to keep private citizens from exercising their personal property rights.

Water conservation is a legitimate concern and common-pool resources such as underground aquifers can incentivize perverse private behaviors, but public decisions should respect the property rights of current landowners. Water is indeed a scarce resource, but just like any other scarce resource, it can be most efficiently allocated and preserved by allocating property rights and using the power of the market to determine extraction rates.

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