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Research from OU finds investments in rural water infrastructure improve economic outcomes after 8 years

A slightly rusty water tower against a cloudy sky.
Amir Mohammad HP

A rural sociologist at the University of Oklahoma found that investments in water infrastructure have positive impacts on rural communities—but they may require some patience.

Dr. Tom Mueller, an OU professor, studies economic well-being in rural communities across the country. In a study published last month, Mueller and a colleague from Michigan State University found when rural communities spend more on water infrastructure, they tend to have lower poverty rates, higher average incomes and less unemployment.

“The idea is that water infrastructure investment is going to lead to positive outcomes down the line,” Mueller said.

But the study showed that those economic improvements tended to lag about 8 years behind the infrastructure investments. And communities with more Latino, Black or Indigenous people tended to see less of those benefits, which Mueller attributed to the long-term effects of systemic racism.

Despite the uneven results, many rural communities need improvements to their aging water infrastructure. But it can be difficult to fund them as more people move out of rural communities and into cities and suburbs.

“Rural areas are losing population and they have these kind of aging, fixed-income tax bases,” Mueller said.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) have allotted billions of federal dollars that could be used to improve rural water and wastewater infrastructure in lieu of local taxes. But according to Mueller, rural water systems face several hurdles in getting to that money.

“A lot of times in these rural water systems, it's like one or two people running it,” Mueller said. “They probably don't have the capacity to go for grants.”

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board announced its ARPA funding priorities at the end of January. Communities with fewer than 7,000 residents will receive $48 million, while $38 million will go to larger communities.

The board also has $15 million of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds for clean water projects across the state. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has $71 million from the infrastructure law to fund drinking water projects. That money is intended for communities with limited resources.


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