Oka’ Institute to lead water research (Journal Record)
8/22/2016 by Jessika Leatherbury
Tags: Journal Record
Oka’ Institute to lead water research
Will tie water management and economic development
ADA – A couple of years ago officials in Ada recognized a potential economic development tool.
“In our economic development planning from 2014, we identified a unique niche that this community has,” said Michael Southard, president and CEO of the Ada Jobs Foundation. “What this community has is a collective knowledge of groundwater. We have an EPA groundwater lab. The Chickasaw Nation has a water research group. East Central University has an environmental science program.”
So Southard and other area officials started working on a plan to build on the area’s groundwater resources. The result is the Oka’ Institute, which opened on the ECU campus in July. Oka’ means water in the Chickasaw and Choctaw languages.
The goal of the new center is to connect sustainable water management and economic development, said Susan Paddack, acting director of the institute and a state senator.
A grant to ECU from the Sciences and Natural Resources Foundation of Oklahoma provided seed money for the Oka’ Institute, Paddack said. The grant was funded by the sale of a 70-acre tract of land. The foundation sold the land adjacent to the Ada city limits to the Ada Industrial Development Corp. Money from the land sale was used by the foundation in January for a $394,000 grant to ECU for the institute and a gift to the Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma.
“It seems everything just fell into place,” ECU President John R. Hargrave said in a press release. “The Sciences and Natural Resources Foundation sold some land to the Ada Industrial Development Authority, which donated the money to the East Central University Foundation to begin the water institute. The ECU Foundation also sold a piece of land that was originally donated by the SNRF to create water research opportunities.”
The institute is being funded by outside sources through the ECU Foundation.
At the request of the Ada Jobs Foundation, the Ada City Council approved $1.25 million for the institute, $250,000 annually for five years beginning this fall. The nonprofit Ada Jobs Foundation has a contract with the city to provide economic development services.
“The institute has received just under $3 million in pledges,” Southard said.
The Oka’ Institute is a collaborative effort.
ECU serves as a federal and state depository library for this area of the state and the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer is the most studied water resource in the state, Paddack said.
Water resource research by the Chickasaw Nation and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center provide expertise to ensure the success of the institute, she said.
“All these factors lead to ECU being a perfect location for such an institute to create a strong new voice in water policy discussions,” said Paddack.
The strategic goals of the institute are economic development, research and data collection, information and education and policy development.
Research will be led by Guy Sewell, professor and Robert S. Kerr Endowed Chair and executive director of ECU’s Institute for Environmental Science Education and Research. He will serve as the director of research for the Oka’ Institute.
Interdisciplinary research teams are expected to include water experts, stakeholders, educators and students who will work in the institute and develop new methods and practices. The researchers will also propose policy and legal solutions as well as supply educational outreach programs that are focused on addressing water challenges.
“What we have done is to spring off from some of the research areas of our partners,” Sewell said.
ECU also has plans to add a master’s degree in water policy management.
“We think there will be a lot of leverage between the master’s degree program and the institute,” Sewell said.
Academic programs will initially be separate from the institute. The academic program will be in the Department of Political Science and Legal Studies, Sewell said.
The Oka’ Institute also plans to work with businesses on water policy and management that focus on entrepreneurial opportunities.
“The next step from an economic development role is to recruit businesses in water resource industries to the area,” Southard said.
For research and data collection, the institute plans to develop room for water policy and management research connected to the issues facing the state and nation through external funding and recruitment of professionals.
The institute also plans to be a source of information and expertise in water resources. The institute’s first water resource conference is scheduled Oct. 26 and 27.
Paddack said the Oka’ Institute is still organizing.
“So far we have done a lot of work with very few people,” she said. “We an executive assistant and about 10 interns. We are vetting scientists.”