East Central University’s newly-formed Oka’ Institute is going to be a top-notch water research facility that also holds with it great potential to tap into job growth for the region.
One strategy being examined for the Oka’ Institute is formulating economic development around a concept known as water clusters — developing a research program that attracts public and private partnerships that will spur economic growth in the area.
Oka’ Institute Executive Director Susan Paddack said the research idea grew out of work with the Ada Jobs Foundation.
“I have always been interested in water issues, and having been the senator for this area, obviously I know we have many wonderful resources here,” Paddack said. “We have Kerr Lab. Very few small towns have a U.S. EPA lab — that’s significant. We have a history and a heritage, if you will, of understanding the importance of water. “When you add to that all that the Chickasaw Nation is doing with water and all that East Central University is doing in environmental science — great leaders have said for many years there needs to be an opportunity to bring all of that together.”
Paddack said she believes the time has come to do just that right here in Ada.
“It takes the right leaders at the right time,” she said, adding “(We) started thinking about the strategic plan the Ada Jobs Foundation put out, which said we were just poised for development in this area, (and realized) we need to maximize the resources we have.”
The region has significant water resources, both natural and scientific, including the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer.
“So, how do we get smarter and start talking about longterm management of our resources?” Paddack asked. “From the perspective of the Legislature, those issues are always just sort of a knee-jerk kind of reaction — they’re year-to-year and not necessarily long-term.”
Information she received from the Ada Jobs Foundation correlated with her experience in the Legislature.
“The Jobs Foundation said if we really want to point Ada in the right direction, we need to start looking to the water industry — this (idea about a) water cluster,” she said.
Oka’ Institute Director of Research Guy Sewell said cluster technology is driving economic development in many places around the country right now, and Ada is positioned to play a role.
“Historically there’s been this new model for economic development — this (move towards) public science and technology core groups partnering up with private entities to do economic development,” Sewell said. “Within the federal government there’s an economic initiative that allows for the development of technology clusters. Different federal agencies do different clusters. The Environmental Protection Agency has water clusters, but they don’t have a groundwater cluster. We believe this will become a long-term economic development driver, and we’ve been tasked with looking into this water cluster concept.”
That’s where the EPA’s Kerr Research Center comes into play. Kerr Lab, as it’s known locally, is designated as a groundwater research facility and staffed with globally recognized experts in the field.
Paddack said pairing the lab’s experts with ECU’s researchers is a logical first step down the road to either establishing a water cluster around Ada or becoming part of a larger Oklahoma-Texas-based cluster.
“When you look at the map on the EPA’s website, there are no water clusters anywhere in the central United States, except in Texas. So, we began to explore what this is,” Paddack said.
Through officials at the Kerr Research Center, Paddack said, connections were established between groundwater experts and academics who wish to study the subject.
In a proof-of-concept experiment, Sewell has been exploring the use of drone technology to map the source and flow of groundwater. Sewell said venture capitalists are looking to invest in cluster-based technologies — looking to fund startups in technology centers associated with, in this case, groundwater management.
“Not only do you have federal financial input, but you typically have large corporate investments and then public and private entities … finding ways to leverage their investment in startups to fund new jobs and companies associated with the expertise in the area — that’s the technology model that’s been successful across the country,” Sewell said. “Well, we’re Ada. We don’t have computer chips, but what we do have are some of the best water scientists in the world.”
Paddack and Sewell said they are hopeful the unique research conducted at Oka’ Institute will have a profound impact on Ada’s economic future.