Oka’ Institute takes 2020 Water Sustainability Conference to worldwide audience with online presentation

Connor Cox, left, with OCAST, Tom Wavering with the Tom Love Innovation Hub at the University of Oklahoma, and James Eldridge with the Ada Jobs Foundation in a Zoom presentation during the Oka’ Water Conference

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.”

Stillwater’s XploSafe presents in a discussion moderated by Dia Ghosh with the Ada Jobs Foundtion

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).

WATCH: OCAST interviews at Oka’ Sustainability Conference

Why is water sustainability a key to Oklahoma’s future?  Here’s what several participants at the recent Oka’ Sustainability Conference on the campus of East Central University in Ada had to say about the subject:


Oka’ Sustainability conference showcases mobile technology to remediate water produced in drilling operations

Editor’s Note: I was invited by my friends at the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology to attend the recent Oka’ Sustainability conference at East Central University in Ada, where the focus was on ways to preserve and sustain Oklahoma’s water resources for future generations.  I wrote this report on the experience.

ADA – Billions of barrels of salty, grimy water are produced by the nation’s oil and gas drilling operations annually, with few alternatives for its disposal.

The water is so polluted that it can’t be used again for drilling operations and has no place to go except deep into the earth. That water must be hauled long distances to disposal wells and more fresh water imported for operations.

“What’s happening with advances in drilling technology, they are drilling deeper wells and longer laterals,” said Joe Haligowski, sales director for Filtra-Systems LLC, a company owned by Chickasaw Nation Industries. “That’s producing more oil, but it’s also producing more water.”

The AQWATEC research center at the Colorado School of Mines reports that 21 billion barrels of water are produced annually by U.S. drilling operations.

Gov. Bill Anoatubby with the Chickasaw Nation (center) poses with reps from tribal owned Filtra Systems, showcasing technology to remediate water produced from oil & gas wells.

Enter mobile technology developed by Filtra-Systems to meet that challenge. The Chickasaw-owned company showcased its new SCOUT mobile water recycling system at the recent Oka’ Institute Sustainability Conference at East Central University.

The SCOUT technology cleans polluted water as close to the drilling operation as possible so it can be reused in future operations instead of flushed into disposal wells.

“Oka’” is the Chickasaw word for water, and the Oka’ 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. Former state Sen. Susan Paddack is the institute’s executive director.

The Oka’ Institute sponsors the annual Sustainability Conference to focus on ways to protect Oklahoma’s water resources for future generations.

That’s where Filtra-Systems and its SCOUT technology fit the agenda.

“The advantage of reusing water as much as possible provides a cost benefit not only to the oil company but also a benefit to sustainability,” Haligowski said. “We believe that’s important, but it’s also good business.”

The October 2-3 conference attracted over 200 people, from five states as well as international participants, from diverse industries for which water sustainability is critical. The theme of this year’s conference was Quality Water Now and in the Future.

“The whole purpose of this conference is to bring people together who are in agriculture, people who are in oil and gas, utilities, people who are in academic positions in the state, to have this conversation about how we are going to ensure we have water resources forever more,” Paddack said.

Water sustainability is more than just preserving water to sustain future generations, Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in a keynote address at the conference.

“Investment in water sustainability is an investment in both our environment and our economy,” Anoatubby said. “Investing in water sustainability builds businesses, safeguards communities, protects the environment and strengthens durable economic health.”

“The whole purpose of this conference is to bring people together who are in agriculture, people who are in oil and gas, utilities, people who are in academic positions in the state, to have this conversation about how we are going to ensure we have water resources forever more.” — Susan Paddack

How is sustainability good for business?

For starters, it could be jobs. The SCOUT mobile water recycling system is largely manufactured in Marietta, where Filtra-Systems employs about 70 people in the southern Oklahoma community.

Then there is Jimmy Emmons, a farmer from Leedey in far western Oklahoma. Emmons adopted no-till farming practices in 1995, then adopted crop rotations, cover crops and planned grazing management to decrease soil erosion and increase water infiltration of the soil.

“I’m here at the Oka’ Institute conference to share a little bit about soil health and why we should be worried about how we farm,” Emmons said. “My message is for us to think about what we are doing because as a nation we’ve eroded half our top soil, and within that is organic matter that has water holding capacity of our soil. Soil health is the key to helping have more water in the water cycle.”

Instead of planting only wheat and cotton on his 2,000 acres, Emmons now rotates through eight different crops and saves thousands of dollars a year on fuel costs by not plowing his fields. The topsoil doesn’t blow away and the ground holds more water.

“We keep something living and growing, which really mimics Mother Nature and the native prairie system,” he said.

In 2017, Emmons was the first Oklahoman to receive the Leopold Conservation Award, which recognizes achievement in voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources.

A third generation farmer on his Emmons Farms property, Emmons serves as president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and is vice president of the not-for-profit educational organization known as No-Till on the Plains.

“The Oka’ Institute conference here is so important to Oklahoma because they are trying to bring forth how important water is, how we take care of it and how we manage it,” Emmons said. “We very seldom look at that.”