Editor’s note: For the past several years, I have attended the Oka’ Water Sustainability Conference in Ada at the invitation of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST). This year, the conference was forced off the campus of East Central University by the pandemic and onto the World Wide Web as a virtual event. I sat in on the first day and wrote this report on behalf of OCAST:
By Jim Stafford
ADA – The Water Sustainability Conference presented by the Oka’ Institute at East Central University recently took critical topics such as water conservation, research and economics to the screens of participants across Oklahoma and around the world. No masks required.
The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic mandated a change for the 2020 conference. And that required brainstorming from conference planners to execute a virtual presentation on the Zoom video conferencing platform.
“Our attendance was strong,” said Susan Paddack, executive director of the Oka’ Institute. “We had 302 register this year, which was an increase of over 50 from last year. Participation averaged about 120 people per session throughout the two days of the conference.”
The Oka’ Institute sponsors the Water Sustainability Conference annually to tackle issues that impact not only the southeast Oklahoma region, but the rest of the state and nation.
Formally known as Oka’, The Water Institute at East Central University, the Institute was created in 2016 with support from the Chickasaw Nation, the Ada Jobs Foundation and the City of Ada with seed money from the Sciences and Natural Resources Foundation. “Oka’” is the Chickasaw word for water.
This year, speakers included regulatory and conservation agency officials, economic development professionals, entrepreneurs and Oklahoma farmers and ranchers honored for their water conservation efforts.
“We found that we were able to attract speakers from across the state and out of state because the virtual format saves travel time for them,” Paddack said.
Virtual participants came from across Oklahoma, as well as distant locales like California and Australia.
“We love the diversity of our audience,” Paddack said. “Our goal is to provide them with timely information on water research, policy education and the economics/value of water.”
Among the speakers was Ken Wagner, Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment and a former administrator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Water sustainability issues invoke passion among people like few other issues, Wagner said.
“People are willing to fight over that,” he said. “It is conferences like this that allow people of different viewpoints to be heard, to get their priorities and passions known so that policy makers like me and director Paddack and certainly Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby and the Chickasaw Nation can actually hear what is important to Oklahomans.”
Water continues to be an ongoing topic for Oklahoma regulators, he said.
“Our office is in the process of working on many water projects of sustainability and protection around the state,” Wagner said. “We see this as the highest priority.”
The state, along with the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations and the city of Oklahoma City signed an historic agreement in 2016 designed to ensure water abundance for decades into the future.
“The agreement provides a framework to ensure sustainable management of our water resources for rural areas and urban communities alike,” Gov. Anoatubby told conference participants in his address.
“Water availability is the greatest economic building block for all communities,” he said. “The Chickasaw Nation is committed to working with local communities to develop tangible solutions to protect the groundwater and surface water we all depend upon.”
The conference also featured a panel discussion that included three recent Oklahoma Leopold Conservation Award winners who have taken decisive steps such as no-till farming and controlled burning of unwanted vegetation to ensure the land they manage can hold moisture and fight erosion.
The Leopold Award recognizes landowners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.
Oklahoma Leopold winners who described their conservation efforts included Jimmy Emmons (2017 winner) of Leedy in far western Oklahoma, Russ Jackson (2018 winner) from Kiowa County in southwestern Oklahoma and Chuck Coffey (2020 winner) from the Arbuckle Mountain region.
Also featured were economic development officers from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), the Tom Love Innovation Hub on the University of Oklahoma campus, as well as Oklahoma entrepreneurs, elected officials, representatives from the EPA, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and other stakeholders.
“In these challenging times, our sponsors stepped up to make sure that this high quality, valuable information was still shared through our conference,” Paddack said. “Water is needed for life. Water is needed for economic growth. We must keep focused on our efforts to ensure water sustainability, and Oka’ is grateful and proud to be a part of this vital discussion.”
Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).