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Will Norman raise water rates to fund improvements the city says are necessary? It's up to residents

Lake Thunderbird at dusk seen through thick, green brush at the lake's edge.
Graycen Wheeler
Norman gets almost 70% of its drinking water from Lake Thunderbird.

Norman residents will vote on whether to raise their water rates Tuesday. The city says it needs the extra money to replace aging water lines and make sure the city meets water quality requirements.

The rate hike would raise most customers’ bills by about $5 a month, although residents can calculate their specific rate increase on the city’s website.

“The water rates have already been pretty cost-effective,” said Norman Utilities Director Chris Mattingly. “I mean, when we compare ourselves to other cities in the metro’s current rates, we're the lowest.”

But Mattingly said this has been the city’s worst year on record for line breaks. The city has had more line breaks per 100 ft of line than 75% of U.S. water systems, according to recent data from the American Water Works Association.

About half the city’s lines are made out of cast iron or ductile iron, which tends to corrode in Norman’s clay soils. Mattingly said drought-stricken clay can even cause the lines to snap in two.

 A corroded water pipe with a hole in it and a lead service line.
Graycen Wheeler
Mattingly uses a piece of corroded ductile iron pipe and a lead service line to demonstrate Norman's aging water infrastructure.

Our budgets being low, we're only able to go in and patch and repair and then fix the damage that the blowout does,” Mattingly said. “But we're not able to really schedule pipe replacements in a preventative fashion.”

If the increase is approved, Mattingly said, it would generate almost $7 million per year, which the city can use to improve its water lines and meet upcoming water standards.

Norman gets most of its water from Lake Thunderbird, but about a quarter comes from municipal wells.

Those wells currently just pump water out of the ground into a pipe, and then that flows to our system,” said Norman Utilities Engineer Nathan Madenwald. “The challenge that we have with that is the Department of Environmental Quality requires that we have chlorine residual within our system to make sure if there's anything that gets into that line and it provides resistance to bacteria or other things growing.

But the city doesn’t add chlorine at each of these individual wells. Madenwald said the city needs to bring its municipal well water to a central point where it can be chlorinated.

If the city can’t chlorinate its water, Mattingly said the DEQ could issue a violation against Norman for breaking the law. But he hopes improvements could also set the city up to comply with future changes to water quality standards, like anticipated limits for forever chemical PFAS.

Madenwald said the rate hike would also enable the city to comply with new lead and copper programs.

We've got about $6 million in the next five years that we're looking to spend on that program to better understand where we have lead in our system,” Madenwald said.

That will help the city know where it needs to prioritize replacing lead and copper service lines with PVC ones.

“If we all know we're pitching in to make our water system more reliable, safer, I think customers can get behind that,” Mattingly said. “We'll have a nice system we're all proud of and, you know, not have all these failures and disruptions and fears of maybe having a boil order.”

Norman is the only large city in Oklahoma that requires a city-wide vote to raise water rates. Anyone registered to vote in Norman can cast a ballot, not just utility customers. The special election will take place on Tuesday, June 13.

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