Scope of Terry Peach Act could lay groundwork for statewide change
Oklahoma’s redcedar eradication effort and study planned for the North Canadian River watershed next five years is unprecedented in its scope.
With the governor’s signature in June, House Bill 2239, by Rep. Mike Dobrinski, R-Okeene, created the Terry Peach North Canadian Watershed Restoration Act. It tasks the Oklahoma Conservation Commission to complete a 10,000-acre hydrology study targeting native redcedar trees, a variety of juniper that, left un-managed, takes over landscapes. Experts say it forms sweeping water- hog monocultures that crowd out valuable grazing lands, are of little benefit to wildlife, and create costly wildfire hazards.
Over decades of redcedar warnings from land managers and debate in the statehouse, the act marks an unprecedented singular effort by any agency in the state with the attempt to roll in science while changing miles of landscape through public perception, landmanagement practices, and future policymaker action.
Organizers note that the study area won’t uncover a cure-all for drought. Still, it could reveal factors that will inspire more landowners statewide that redcedar removal is worth the effort to conserve water, increase available grazing lands, improve wildlife habitat, and reduce wildfire danger.
According to Trey Lam, Conservation Commission executive director, with federal matching funds, the $3.2 million approved by legislators could grow to well over $4 million focused across a seven-county area from Oklahoma City to the Panhandle. Cooperative efforts with other state and federal agencies and adjacent municipal and private landowners inspired by the state’s work could significantly boost the total time and money spent when all is said and done.
“The basic idea is to show if and how it can work,” Lam said. “If we show how it can work, that can inspire people to do it to help themselves, and it shows the government, the policymakers, an economic payback, a return on the investment.”
Where the money goes
The first $1 million will fund redcedar eradication teams, Lam said.
“We’re putting out four sets of equipment, skid steers with mulchers and tree shears, and staff, two above Canton Lake and two downstream,” he said.
Creating brush-free zones around communities is the early priority for those teams, so if wildfires take off, they are less of a threat.
The second phase is public education programs and financial and training boosts for rural fire departments and regional prescribed burn associations. Lam said training with Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association experts would focus primarily on planning and executing prescribed burns.
“We can mechanically control a lot of cedars, but the only real economical way to cover large areas is through prescribed burns. A problem is a lot of people are afraid of fire,” he said.
About $1.5 million will cover the grant portion of the program, including funding for prescribed burns and cooperative funding with landowners to remove redcedars, with higher rates used to clear watersheds that will be part of the hydrology study.
Another roughly $400,000 of the state’s money paired with an expected 2/3rds match, or approximately $800,000 more in federal matching funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will fund the science.
Hydrology study complicated
He said it is a tall order to work with landowners and lay out a patchwork of 5,000 acres to be cleared and compared to a nearly identical 5,000 more where heavy redcedar stands remain for the length of the study–be they seasonal wetlands, springs, or other tributaries. It will take time.
While hydrology is the focus, that discipline necessitates a broad look at everything from aquatic life to soil health and siltation to evaporation, in addition to how vegetation rebounds after redcedar removal.
“It would be nice to be quicker with the study, but we need the methodology to be correct, and it will take time to work with landowners and map that out,” he said.
Still, he said he expects the work to begin within the first year and added that the North Canadian watershed is a good test subject.
“If you look at it, it is a relatively long, narrow watershed with the higher areas on either side breaking south to the Canadian River and north to the Cimarron,” he said. “I think if we can get in there and make some headway and get people aware of the program and get those resources from other federal and state agencies, we can start making a difference.”
Focusing on the river upstream from Oklahoma City includes most of the 440-mile North Canadian watershed and addresses growing water supply concerns.
The North Canadian headwaters are in Beaver County. It flows eastward and southward through Woodward and is dammed in Blaine County to form Canton Lake, a water supply lake for Oklahoma City. A seven-mile stretch through Oklahoma City is channelized and renamed the Oklahoma River, associated with the city’s Boathouse District. The remainder of the river flows as a braided sandy river 100 miles east and south through Shawnee to its confluence with the Canadian River as part of Lake Eufaula.
Earlier studies much smaller in scale OSU and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Oklahoma Water Science Center have studied the state’s redcedar encroachment since 2008. The studies show that redcedar monocultures use more water than diverse grassland landscapes and that they create wildfire danger.
However, the details of the hydrology results of those long-term studies remain debated and include a list of variables that can influence exactly how much redcedar removal means for groundwater and flowing streams, according to Chris Zou, who has worked on the OSU studies as a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology & Management.
Zou said that average annual precipitation, soil types, geological formations, climate trends, the average rainfall for a given area–and whether rain arrives in flood events or soaking events–are just a few factors scientists must consider when measuring the overall hydrologic impacts on a landscape.
Comparisons of a heavy redcedar cover compared to grassland showed the woody vegetation resulted in more evaporation of rainfall before it could soak into the landscape to increase soil moisture or recharge groundwater and streamflow. The trees also showed greater uptake of water from the soil. Still, Zou and fellow researchers noted varied streamflow results, even among watersheds of similar cover types.
At least one major difference between what OSU has done and what the Conservation Commission will do is the sheer size of the project, he said.
“What we were able to do involved a few hectares,” he said. “Our studies are done with competitive grants, so there are funding limitations.”
That redcedar and saltcedar encroachment statewide impacts the state water resources is not in doubt but is not a simple thing to quantify. He said what OSU continues to do on a handful of acres and whatever role the University might play in cooperation with the Commission on the Terry Peach area could better define that impact statewide.
“If what (The Commission) does is big enough, they may see some real differences. I’m very interested to see it,” he said.
The Oklahoma Ecology Project is a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on Oklahoma’s conservation and environmental issues. Learn more at okecology.org.