STILLWATER – Not only is safe, clean water a luxury for some rural residents, but small municipalities also struggle to provide a viable water service.
“Small towns and communities often lack funding to meet infrastructure challenges with water and wastewater,” said Kevin Wagner, director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Center at Oklahoma State University. “This is a major concern and a public health issue across the state and the country. “
Ten years ago, the town of Hollis, which currently has 1,800 residents in Harmon County, southwestern Oklahoma, needed to address the high levels of nitrates in its water. Nitrates are an inorganic form of nitrogen commonly used as a fertilizer for lawns, landscapes, and in production agriculture. Excessive amounts in drinking water, however, can threaten human health, especially in babies and pregnant women.
Water pumped from Hollis’ five wells was treated with chlorine, but nitrate issues persisted until the city secured funding to build its own water treatment facility. In February 2019, Hollis built a new ion exchange treatment plant that uses chlorinated brine to remove nitrates from its well water.
“We now have the cleanest water we’ve ever had,” said City Manager Mark Whisenant. “Our foreman of the water and sanitation service regularly monitors the plant via applications on his phone and laptop. It receives a warning if something is not working properly. It’s a pretty sophisticated system.
With $ 3.2 million in rural development loans, funding from the Federal Indian Health Services Agency and grants from the Rural Economic Action Plan (REAP), the town of Hollis has solved its water problem. , but many small towns are still looking for answers.
“A factory like the one in Hollis would be a dream for our town,” said Bryant Ferris, mayor of Tipton in Tillman County.
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Tipton is also battling a nitrate problem with water pumped from its main well. To stay in compliance with Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality standards, he accesses a water pipe near Frederick to provide a water mixture of 80% water from his well and 20 % of City of Frederick.
“Anytime there is a particle in our water, the chlorine in Frederick’s water sticks together,” Ferris said. “Frederick’s nitrates are low, but his total trihalomethanes are very high. We are constantly rocking the valves back and forth to mix the two water sources.
Town of around 750 residents, Tipton’s only source of income is supplying water to residents, which requires a profitable strategy. Relying on your own well water is much cheaper than paying to access Frederick’s line, but nitrate levels in his well have forced the municipality to seek alternatives.
“We drilled test wells and found low nitrate outside of town, but we couldn’t afford to pay for the pipeline,” Ferris said.
Another option is to secure funding for infrastructure through federal COVID-19 relief projects that are reserved for public services, such as water and wastewater.
Assistance from the Council of Governments
Ferris said the goal was to find enough money to build his own water treatment facility. While Tipton’s grants writer works overtime, the South Central Oklahoma Association of Governments and similar agencies are supporting utility upgrades.
“Working with small towns to help them get grants and loans to improve their infrastructure is our only goal,” said Tom Zigler, director of community and economic development for ASCOG. “Once we’ve solved a problem, we work on sustainability. We want to make sure that once a city has spent $ 500,000 to $ 1 million on a project, it has the capacity to maintain its new system. “
Zigler and ASCOG are a life changing resource for small towns. The association combines REAP grants with funding from the US Department of Agriculture or other community block grants, and it can help cities join loan programs offered by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
“Small towns don’t have the staff or the funds to pay people to work on their water or sewer treatment facilities,” Zigler said. “We are teaming up with the Oklahoma Rural Water Association to educate small towns about administrative responsibilities, such as establishing a water maintenance schedule or understanding water rights. Consulting with municipalities and helping them find money is part of protecting the public health and safety of a community. “
Among the resources available through ORWA, ODEQ and OWRB, small towns can identify funding channels, benefit from discounts and schedule training for construction, rehabilitation, maintenance or survey work. related to water and sanitation systems. Zigler said federal funding is available through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, but the application process can be overwhelming for a small municipality.
“Small towns are crippled by staff unless they get involved in their local government council or economic development district,” he said. “The best advice I can give is to find out who is in your area and contact them. This is what we are here for.
In addition to COGs across the state, OSU Extension is a valuable resource, providing inexpensive and reliable soil, water and forage testing in its Stillwater lab. The facility also works closely with the Okahoma Water Resource Center to promote responsible and sustainable water practices for all Oklahoma residents. As communities raise funds to meet their infrastructure needs, the water center is developing a pilot program to help cities and residents supplied by well systems monitor their water safety.