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Drinking water improvements to cost state billions

Replacing, upgrading and expanding drinking water systems expected to cost Oklahomans about $87 billion over the next 50 years.
BY RANDY ELLIS Staff Writer Published: June 5, 2011

Oklahoma turned 100 years old 3½ years ago. That was cause for celebration — but also cause for concern for Oklahoma planning officials responsible for making sure residents have safe and dependable drinking water supplies.

As water distribution systems age, treatment plants break down, pumps quit pumping and waterlines collapse. After decades of use, reservoirs silt in and reach the ends of their useful lives.

Water system managers face the challenge of not only coming up with enough money to replace aging systems, but also money to expand their systems to serve what is predicted to be about a 33 percent increase in consumptive water use over the next half century.

It is expected to cost $87 billion over the next 50 years to pay for improvements needed by the 776 entities that operate drinking water distribution systems in the state, according to new studies commissioned by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

The costs will impact all Oklahomans, but people who live in small water districts with deteriorated systems should perhaps be particularly concerned.

Small districts that serve fewer than 3,300 citizens provide water to only about 16 percent of state residents, but are expected to face about 46 percent of the $87 billion in system infrastructure costs over the next 50 years, the studies indicate.

“Smaller systems are a real issue, particularly for rural Oklahoma,” said Kyle Arthur of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. “And it isn't solely about collapsing lines or pumps wearing out. It is also about compliance with evermore stringent federal regulations and having a sustainable system.”

Failure to address rural water district problems would mean “in some parts of the state it might dry up, literally and figuratively,” he said.

Officials divided the state into 13 regions for purposes of the study. The draft study results show the Central Region, which includes Oklahoma City and several surrounding counties, is expected to face 31 percent of the needed improvement costs. That is by far the highest percentage. The Middle Arkansas Region, which includes Tulsa and several northeastern counties, is expected to be confronted with 17 percent of the improvement costs.

In the past, Oklahoma water providers often have turned to two Oklahoma Water Resources Board programs for assistance in obtaining grants or low-interest loans to help finance improvements.

Those programs are the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Financial Assistance Program. A study by FirstSouthwest Bank indicated those programs have been effective, but only have the capacity to fund a small fraction of the improvements that will be needed over the next 50 years. The bank recommends developing a whole new program to finance future water improvements.

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