City of Norman Takes Leadership Role in Water Conservation Efforts 4

Participation of Norman Residents Required to Achieve Goals

A few years ago, the state and many other parts of the nation experienced a drought so severe, it recalled to many the frightening stories of the state’s Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

In 2012, the Oklahoma Climatological Survey declared that an “exceptional” (the most severe category) drought extended from Cleveland and McClain counties in central Oklahoma to the northwest. Lake Thunderbird–which supplies water to Norman, Midwest City and Del City–dipped down below 75 percent of capacity, and 9,000 thousand acres burned, resulting in one fatality east of Norman.

If one positive note can be extrapolated from this experience, it’s that the prolonged drought raised general awareness of the critical importance and role of water in our lives and communities.

While the City of Norman already had a Water Conservation Plan in place, the severity of the drought caused city officials to take additional actions, drawing up plans and policies that addressed both the at-hand crisis as well as the long term. Some of these actions took the form of immediate, mandatory ordinances, such as odd-even water rationing (which was made permanent); other times, the city’s leaders requested the help of citizens to conserve water on a voluntary basis.

Not surprisingly, one of the areas of city government to take a leadership role, as well as a hands-on one, on the water conservation issue was the Utilities Department. Ken Komiske, Utilities director, helped spearhead Norman’s current water conservation plan (available for reading at

Komiske has helped formulate and drive a number of other water conservation initiatives as well. For example, unlike many cities, Norman has a strong water-meter monitoring system, and even monitors its own meters at city pools, fire stations, recreation centers, parks and median irrigation. A complete metering program allows the city to more accurately track its water production and helps show water losses, which might indicate a leak, for instance.

Other courses of action the city has initiated to ensure water resources are being used wisely include:

  • The City teamed up with the University of Oklahoma to allow the use of treated wastewater (effluent) for irrigating portions of the Jimmie Austin Golf Course, which means a smaller draw on the city’s clean water supply, especially during the summer when outdoor water use is highest. Working with the state of Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, consideration is being given to expanding ways water can be reused.
  • The City initiated inverted water rates on businesses and residential users, which increases water costs in increments above a certain threshold, thereby encouraging conservation.
  • An irrigation ordinance was adopted in 2005 that requires automatic switch-off features on new water irrigation systems installed by commercial entities and residences when it’s raining or the weather drops below freezing. The City carefully monitors its own water usage in public landscaping areas.

Noting that a top-10 water user in most cities is its wastewater treatment plant, Komiske said they recently launched a program there in which treated effluent is used for all maintenance activities, such as washing down clarifier weirs, foam suppression, pump seals, etc.–resulting in a savings of some 10 to 13 million gallons a month.

Another frequently visited public space that has undergone changes to make it more water-friendly is the Griffin park complex, where the utilities, parks and recreation departments and Cleveland County teamed up to repurpose a water well whose water was not suitable for drinking purposes and build an irrigation pond that is now used to supply most of the water for irrigation as well as adding a popular amenity to the park.

Komiske also is proud of the fact that “Norman is the first municipality in the state to have a gray water ordinance.” This means that Norman residents may use water from the shower, tub, bathroom sink or clothes washer for gardening or watering their lawn without applying for a permit.

Komiske gives much of the credit to customers. “They have embraced conservation, reduced our peak water usage and been very supportive of our positive changes regarding water and wastewater use and reuse.”

Another key player in the city’s water conservation efforts is Amanda Nairn, who serves as chair of the City’s Environmental Control Advisory Board, an all-volunteer board appointed by the mayor and City Council, and as a member of the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District, which oversees Lake Thunderbird. In both capacities, she offers recommendations to the mayor and council.

Under her leadership, ECAB has launched a number of significant water conservation campaigns and programs, among them the Water’s Worth It™ program. Launched in 2012 by mayoral proclamation, this program includes several educational and outreach components, including a poster contest for children in kindergarten through fifth grade and a monthly landscaping contest. The latter, for both residences and businesses, offers recognition for planting yards and gardens that, while attractive, require minimal watering. For more information and to download a nomination form, visit

ECAB earlier was involved in a study on fertilizer use, which was used to help establish a fertilizer ordinance for the city and related outreach efforts, and for several years has been involved in a popular rain barrel giveaway program. With the help of such entities as the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and Cleveland County Conservation District, Nairn has helped lead complimentary workshops to teach people how to build their own rain barrels and how to use them effectively.

She also has led workshops to educate the public on storm water, landscaping responsibly during a drought and other related topics. ECAB also has partnered with OU’s largest volunteer effort, The Big Event, to distribute water conservation-related and fertilizer use information, and its members can be seen at many local festivals distributing information. Look for them at the Earth Day Festival April 24 at Reaves Park.

“Time and again, our citizens have demonstrated a strong commitment to environmental stewardship. Our city staff set a great example of using water wisely in municipal operations,” said Norman Mayor Cindy Simon Rosenthal. “It is most gratifying to see the level of enthusiasm by our citizen volunteers on ECAB and throughout the city to making water conservation a priority.”

Komiske and Nairn know that, like other cities and communities across the state, nation and world, establishing sound water conservation strategies is essential to maintaining a robust community. But the city and a handful of environmental organizations cannot accomplish this feat alone; it requires the commitment of every single Norman resident, young and old.

So, wash your car with a bucket of water and a sponge. Switch out your sprinkler for a soaker hose. Fix that pesky faucet leak. Remember, every drop counts.

For tips on reducing your water use, a listing of area-specific drought-tolerant plants, instructions on constructing a rain barrel and other water conservation tips, visit