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Rural Oklahoma water projects waiting for pandemic relief funds should have news by this fall

Photograph of a steel multi-column water tower. It's a little rusty. Behind it is a blue sky with wispy clouds.
Andy Arthur
Of its $1.87 billion in total ARPA funds, Oklahoma has dedicated at least $70 million to water infrastructure.

Oklahoma has received thousands of applications for pandemic relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, including more than 700 requests for funds to improve or repair water infrastructure.

Now, the Oklahoma legislature has allocated $50 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which will distribute it for water projects. Other applicants who are still waiting can expect an update over the next two months.

This economic stimulus bill is intended to help the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but Oklahoma has been slow to disburse its available funding. After Gov. Kevin Stitt’s slow and secretive rollout of the relief funds, the state legislature voted to call a special joint session this May to take more control of the distribution process.

Sen. Roger Thompson is the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Thompson said he expects to have allocated the $1.87 billion in available American Rescue Plan Act funds sometime before the next legislature is seated this fall.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do between now and November,” Thompson said. “I think the public can look for us to authorize some of this, probably in late August or early September.”

A Small Rural Town's Request

The Porum Public Works Authority, located in Thompson’s district in eastern Oklahoma, is one of the applicants waiting to hear back about funding to renovate its water lines.

“We've done our application, but I've not heard anything else on the process as far as when decisions will be made,” said Sissy Swafford of the Porum Public Works Authority.

In the application, the Porum PWA described undersized water lines and outdated pipes that leave the system prone to dangerous line breaks. These create areas of negative pressure that “could lead to contamination of the system and loss of property and/or life.”

One of those line breaks occurred the first week of July, preventing the water treatment plant from pumping water to the storage towers.

The Porum PWA warned its 5,000 customers that they may need to conserve water for the entire weekend. But Swafford said they were able to repair the leak and restore water to the towers by Friday evening.

“I have not had any reports that anyone was without water,” Swafford said. “It was just more of a precautionary thing in anticipation of possible problems.”

But that wasn’t the water system’s first hurdle. Porum lost its water tower in the severe winter storm of February 2021, and leaks aren’t uncommon.

“We've had a lot of water leak issues just with the heat,” Swafford said. “Extreme heat, extreme cold — it’s rough both ways.”

The cost to update Porum’s water lines has been rising. Originally, the PWA expected the project to cost $3.5 million. But by the time they applied for American Public Rescue Plan Act funding in February of this year, COVID-related inflation and supply chain issues had nearly doubled the cost to $6.3 million, according to the application. And inflation has risen even higher since then.

Relief Funds On The Way

Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah)
Oklahoma Senate
Sen. Roger Thompson (R-Okemah)

Groups like the Porum PWA might eventually see some pandemic relief funds, even if the joint committee doesn’t approve their American Rescue Plan Act applications. Thompson said that the committee has allotted $50 million to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

“We chose the Oklahoma Water Resources Board because they're used to dealing with water,” Thompson said. “They're used to dealing with grants and grant applications.”

The Water Resources Board needs to develop specific rules and procedures for distributing the American Rescue Plan Act funds. Oklahomans can read the rules on the Water Resources Board’s website and offer public comment on them until Aug. 12.

Thompson said that while they’re still considering applications from individual water projects, the committee is working to bundle much of the funding into existing frameworks.

“We're encouraging those communities to work through the Water Resources Board,” Thompson said.

The joint committee has also allocated $20 million to a partnership with the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations. The tribes are contributing an equal amount and will allocate those funds to improve water infrastructure on tribal lands.

While the American Rescue Plan Act funding should enable some improvements, rural communities will need more funding as water infrastructure across the state continues to age. In its 2021 infrastructure report, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that Oklahoma will need $6.9 billion for drinking water and $2.4 billion for wastewater over the next two decades.

“There’s just such needs in the state of Oklahoma, especially in water infrastructure, and we do plan to address as many as we can possibly address,” Thompson said. “Water infrastructure remains the top priority.”

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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