Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District, represented by House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee member Tom Cole and located in the south-central part of the State, is fighting to maintain aging local water systems that have historically relied on state and Federal funding that has dramatically declined in recent years. The district’s small towns in particular have struggled with deteriorating pipes and pumps, limited funding to make critically needed repairs and upgrades, drought conditions, and increasing demands to provide clean water to an expanding customer base.
The city of Chickasha in the 4th District’s Grady County is a good example of the challenges these communities face. The city’s water supply is currently several feet below normal levels as a result of a severe drought, and water line crews have been working for months repairing city water lines broken due to a combination of age and drought. Many of the city’s water lines were laid as long as 80 years ago, making them susceptible to leaks and breaks. Drought conditions have resulted in shifting soil, causing record levels of damage to aging water lines.
Chickasha is just one of many Oklahoma cities and towns confronting aging water infrastructure with diminished funds. Tiny Corn, Oklahoma, for example, was recently highlighted in a report by StateImpact Oklahoma. This small town in Washita County desperately needs a reliable sewer system, but the lagoon holding the town’s wastewater has holes in it. Repairing the lagoon is estimated to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, funds that the town of 503 residents simply does not have. The report quotes Corn Mayor Barbara Nurnberg on the likelihood that the town will be forced to go into debt to fund the repairs, resulting in higher water bills that residents cannot afford. “If we have to raise [water rates] really high to cover our loan costs,” she says, “then people leave town because it’s too expensive to live here…But if you don’t fix the infrastructure we’re dead in the water anyway.”
The small town of McCurtain faces similar struggles. McCurtain needs an estimated $100,000 to build a water purification station to meet increasingly stringent water quality standards. But paying for that station is “nearly impossible,” according to McCurtain’s Mayor, who was also quoted in the StateImpact report. Unfortunately, McCurtain’s problems are common throughout Oklahoma. Currently, over 100 communities and 132 municipal wastewater systems across the State are under consent orders from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Those orders require local regulators to take steps to improve compliance with federal water quality standards. The need for funds to comply with them is growing while state and Federal appropriations for this purpose have been shrinking. According to the StateImpact report, programs designed to regulate local drinking water and wastewater operations are funded primarily through legislative appropriations that have declined by roughly 30 percent since 2009.
Communities in Oklahoma’s 4th District and all over the State must replace aging sewer lines, improve degraded wastewater treatment facilities, modernize old collection systems, and take other steps to ensure the safety of their residents’ water supplies. But the expense of these steps is a huge burden on small towns, and Representative Cole and his Subcommittee co-members must see to it that these communities have Federal help in shouldering this burden. The desperate need for Federal funds, including State Revolving Fund appropriations, cannot be ignored.