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Osage Nation may help with lingering water issues in Bartlesville

Since 2001-2002, dry conditions brought into focus the need to expand the city's water supply to meet future demand and to help mitigate weather and climate-related challenges going into the future.

Bartlesville officials met with Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and others to discuss how they could help ease drought conditions the city is facing.

The city of Bartlesville experienced a drought in 2022 and continued to struggle with water issues into 2023 which was affected by dry conditions in southeast Kansas where watersheds for the Hulah and Copan lakes are located – that’s where the city draws their water from.

But, drought for the city isn’t a new problem. Since 2001-2002, dry conditions brought into focus the need to expand the city’s water supply to meet future demand and to help mitigate weather and climate-related challenges going into the future.

They’re hoping the Osage Nation can help.

Last month, Standing Bear met with the city, the mayor and a state representative of Bartlesville, along with ON Attorney General Clint Patterson, ON Cabinet Secretary of Natural Resources Dr. Jann Hayman, and attorney David Bowen to discuss the history of water rights negotiations with the state.

One of the products of that meeting, said Standing Bear, is an agreement with the city of Enid for both Osage and Washington County to draw water out of Kaw Lake near the western side.

“Congress has approved that, and we get to use that water,” Standing Bear told Osage News. 

“They will build access points for Osage Nation called stub outs. We can draw water, no charge, off those water lines, and we can build our own filtration system,” he said.

According to the City of Bartlesville’s own monitoring, “These drought conditions caused lake levels at Hulah and Copan to continue to decline, which negatively impacted Bartlesville’s overall water supply. At its lowest, overall supply reached 56 percent in July.”

These conditions are one of the biggest reasons why Bartlesville city officials met with the Osage Nation in mid-December to discuss the possibility of purchasing water from Kaw Lake and exploring groundwater options in Osage County.

Standing Bear said that as long as any potential water-sharing does not affect Osage water rights, the Nation would like to help the City of Bartlesville.

The talks are preliminary and no decisions have been made at this time.

“We had a very good discussion earlier this month concerning options that could benefit both the City of Bartlesville and its water customers as well as our Osage neighbors,” said City Manager Mike Bailey. “I am hopeful that these discussions will continue to make progress in finding solutions that benefit us all.”

Osage County Commissioner Everett Piper and Standing Bear had a meeting at the request of Myron F. Red Eagle of the Osage Minerals Council to discuss the position of the Osage Nation on sharing water with Bartlesville.

He said he’s concerned about anything underneath the ground within the Osage Nation-not just oil and gas.

“They’re looking at siphoning our water,” Red Eagle said.

“Taking our water from here, and that will benefit them, not us,” he said.

Red Eagle heard on the local Bartlesville radio station KWON that the city was studying the Vamoosa Aquifer, to see if they could tap into that and draw more water. That’s when he became concerned.

“Well, anything that goes underneath the ground belongs to the Osage tribe,” Red Eagle said. He said the subject needs more discussion, especially if the drought continues.

“Water will be more valuable than gold.”

Standing Bear is also concerned about the Ada-Vamoosa aquifer.

“Over the years, it’s suffered on the south side due to environmental damage [from oil drilling], and we’re still managing all that,” he said.

“We’re going very carefully,” said Standing Bear. “We need to look at long-term ten-years from now solutions, nothing rash.”

Standing Bear has been looking into what water belongs to the Nation for the last several years. He says the tribe has not determined the legal boundaries of the water claims of the Osage Nation. They had been meeting with former Attorney General John O’Connor and his predecessor Mike Hunter. Standing Bear said a lot of work needs to be done to measure water usage, determine how much of the water is potable as opposed to saltwater and what is the accessibility of it.

“So this is the city of Bartlesville just stepping into an ongoing discussion that we’ve had for several years,” Standing Bear said. “I think there’s no quick fix.”

In the meantime, Bartlesville has taken several steps to preserve the water they have. They’ve created a water resources committee. They’ve changed the water rate structure so that people who use more pay more. The rate increases have paid for the construction of a new water treatment plant in 2006.

It’s also resulted in less water being used by customers. And, they’ve implemented a water shortage ordinance, which places limits on outdoor water use and includes, “increased emergency water rates when water supply reaches certain thresholds.”

“The ordinance provides a mechanism to be proactive in managing water use to ensure that sufficient water is available throughout a drought,” Water Utilities Director Terry Lauritsen said.

As the climate shifts, Standing Bear said he wants to be prepared for water shortages but also wants to be a good neighbor to the city of Bartlesville.


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Allison Herrera
Allison Herrera
Title: Freelance Reporter
Languages spoken: English

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs Desk.

Herrera recently worked on Bloomberg and iHeart Media's In Trust with Rachel Adams-Heard, an investigative podcast about Osage Headrights.

She currently works for KOSU as their Indigenous Affairs Reporter. Herrera’s Native ties are from her Xolon Salinan tribal heritage.

In her free time, she likes buying fancy earrings, running and spending time with her daughter.


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