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Influx of chicken farms has Delaware County neighbors worried about wells drying up

Influx of chicken farms has Delaware County neighbors worried about wells drying up (KTUL)

DELAWARE COUNTY, Okla. (KTUL) -- Oil and wind are two things Oklahoma is made of. Drive west and you’ll see pump jacks or large wind farms. Head east toward the Arkansas border and there’s another Oklahoma treasure -- water.

In places like Delaware County, some fear the treasure may be lost.

“I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, but I know when I’m out of water, I’ve got a problem,” said Shirleen Denny. “In my view, nothing is being done because I was told this is an outlaw county."

Shirleen and her husband Wayne have lived in Delaware County for most of their lives. They aren’t near a town or water lines, so their water comes from a well on their property that’s been there for decade. They haven’t had a problem until now.

“That’s when it was just sucking air, just no water,” said Wayne.

On their rental property down the road, they said a 375-foot well just dried up. At their home, their water just sputters out of the faucet in the mornings.

“I realize that I live out in Podunk nowhere, I go. But you know what? My livelihood is as important as anybody’s in Tulsa,” said Shirleen.

“I took a rope and tied a weight on it and put it down there,” said Duane Evans. “I had about that much water in the bottom when I always had 30 foot.”

Duane and his brother Kelly Evans can’t remember exactly when he drilled his 50-foot well near Leach. It’s been there for decades, but it dried up at the end of last year.

“It does two gallon a minute, that’s all I got out of that 400 foot,” said Duane.

Across Delaware County, the water that people have counted on is vanishing. Some folks here are forced to choose between laundry or a shower. Others are digging new, deeper wells or installing expensive holding tanks. Mother nature could be blamed for the water crisis, but if you ask many people around here the blame falls on something man-made -- chicken houses.

“They’re just on the other side of those woods right here,” said Wayne. “We’ll go right by them in a jiffy.”

Of the 704 chicken houses in Delaware County, 156 of them have popped up over the last year. There are more than a dozen near Shirleen and Wayne.

“You see that tree line, over there west? Just on the other side of the tree line is where those 12 are going in,” said Wayne, pointing down a gravel road near his house.

Near Duane Evans there are 42 chicken houses.

“They’re supposed to be putting more chicken houses in, so we’re going to be flooded,” said Duane.

Many water experts said it’s impossible to blame the chicken farms for drying up the wells. There’s a drought going on, but people in the area argue they’ve faced much worse and never had an issue. Many folks are wondering how many more poultry operations can their county handle?

“I always thought they had to be so far apart,” said Kelly. “We’re getting (three) over by my house, there’s three and they’re not even a half a mile apart.”

Here in the county, there are no limits on the number of chicken farms, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

Once someone owns or leases the land, they’re entitled to the water below it. For industrial operations, like chicken farms, that’s around 650,000 gallons of water per acre, according the Oklahoma Water Resource Board.

“What can we do? I’ll ask that question. That’s what a lot of people are asking, well what can we do? It’s on their property,” said Kelly.

Channel 8 looked at water use reports from two chicken farms in Delaware County. In 2017, one used 2.5 million gallons of water and another used 4.1 million gallons. That’s about 20 to 40 times the typical household usage.

“We have actually just got surrounded and still are getting surrounded. They’re just almost in a circle around us anymore,” said Kelly.

There are two aquifers in Delaware County. One is a shallower aquifer that’s affected by drought and the other is a deeper aquifer that is largely unchanged by drought. Though most poultry operations tap into the deeper aquifer, around 80 percent of chicken farms in Delaware County also tap into the aquifer most residents use, according to well drilling data from the Oklahoma Water Resource Board.

“When it’s knocking on your door, then it’s too late,” said Shirleen.

“Well, they say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, well we’re going to squeak a little,” said Wayne.

After counting on water for so long, they’re now wondering if it’s about to disappear.

The Oklahoma Water Resource Board is now studying the two aquifers in Delaware County. They’ll monitor water levels and usage. The study could take around three years.

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