Federal government may take over Oklahoma’s drinking water

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Oklahoma needs money to avoid losing its power to regulate its own drinking water. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality is struggling to comply with new federal drinking water regulations.

The ODEQ says they need $2 million to comply with three Environmental Protection Agency rules from 2005 and 2006. The state environmental agency has asked the Oklahoma Legislature for the funding for three years.

“Once those three new rules were in place, we knew we did not have the resources to implement those, and EPA determined they would continue implementing those until we got the funding in place,” says Shellie Chard-McClary, director of DEQ’s Water Quality Division.

Standards for clean drinking water are set by the EPA and then states enforce them. It’s called the Public Water System Supervision program.

Oklahoma might soon become the second state where the federal government is in charge of the safety of its drinking water.

In a letter to Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment Gary Sherrer, EPA Regional Administer Ron Curry said the state has until June 1, 2013 to fully implement the federal rules, and outlined what a federal takeover would mean for Oklahoma.

“Such a primacy shift would result not only in decreased technical assistance and increased federal enforcement of Oklahoma’s public water systems, but would also result in a loss of many millions of dollars available annually for the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund…”

Communities and rural water districts in Oklahoma depend on that fund for loans they need to upgrade water systems.

Without roughly $10 million from Washington, D.C., each year — which the state leverages into millions more in loans — Oklahoma would be on its own to modernize its aging water infrastructure. Coming up with money to enforce the EPA rules is the more affordable option.

“Extended timeframes for rule adoption have been granted and have expired, and previous commitments by the ODEQ to secure necessary resources … have not been fulfilled.”

DEQ Executive Director Steve Thompson says he has little doubt the EPA will follow through with its threats.

“The upcoming Water Quality Management Advisory Council and Environmental Quality Board meetings and 2013 legislative session represent the last opportunity to avoid EPA’s assumption of control of Oklahoma’s PWS Program,” Thompson wrote in a letter to water-challenged communities.

He says the latest proposal is for $1.5 million in new appropriations from the legislature and $500,000 in new fees charged to water systems across the state.

On Tuesday, the advisory council approved the new fees, which are expected to be passed along to consumers.

The board heard comments from the public before the vote, including from Rita LoPresto, city manager of Konawa, Okla., a small town with big water problems. She says the EPA doesn’t have a local touch.

Justin Johnston, a wastewater treatment plant operator in Konawa, Okla., crouches next to a decades old sludge pump during a tour of the town’s water system.

“The staff at DEQ — whenever I can call them and say, ‘I’m out of water. This is what’s going on. These are my ideas. What do y’all think? Help me,’ and they’re there, that means more than all these regulations and everything,” LoPresto says. “I won’t have that if we go with EPA.”

When StateImpact visited Konawa last month, LoPresto worried federal control would mean $15,000 per day fines for missing deadlines to fix the town’s water pressure problems. She says DEQ works with her on things like extending deadlines.

Konowa Water problems

“I mean, even though I have a deadline to fix the water pressure in this town, they know that I’ve already replaced this and this and this with as many grants and as much lending — borrowed money — that the city could borrow,” LoPresto says.

Most state agencies are still reeling from budget crisis cuts over the last few years.

This year’s legislature won’t be excited to spend, either. But Chard-McClary thinks lawmakers will like the idea of an EPA takeover even less.

“Although it has been attempted in the past, I think this has been the best cooperative effort in trying to get the funding in place,” McClary says.

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