Oklahoma Communities Come Together

Originally named Flint Ridge Rural Water District (FRRWD), South Delaware County Regional Water Authority (SDCRWA) is in Kansas, Oklahoma, and began on May 19, 2017. The system aims to provide safe, clean water to all its customers in Northeastern Oklahoma.

To say that South Delaware County Regional Water Authority has gone through a lot would be an understatement. The lengthy process goes back to 2012 when some of the smaller communities in southern Delaware County water supply began to have issues with their water treatment. According to the 2020 Aquarius Project Compendium write-up, the communities struggled to address various drinking water challenges that exceeded various Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum containment levels (MCL) and water that smelled like rotten eggs. The systems located within an 8-mile radius, west of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, were not meeting current and nor would they meet future requirements. These challenges led to many issues, and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued a consent order demanding that the communities improve their drinking water.

COMMUNITIES UNLIMITED BECOMES INVOLVED

Former Communities Unlimited (CU) State Coordinator of Oklahoma, Phil Ross, began talking to community leaders after the situation came to his attention from Billy Hix, Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Engineering (OEH&E) for the Cherokee Nation. The solution was to get each community involved to pay their costs and build a new treatment plant, but through discussions, that plan changed. Hix said, “The project involved several stakeholders who worked together and utilized the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to solve various drinking water system challenges through the creation of a regional water system.”

They began to address all the challenges and find a way to provide safe, reliable drinking water in the future. CU got involved in assisting in the facilitation of the early planning of meetings between the communities. CU’s Environmental Services Central Area Director, Karen Conrad, worked on a rate study and a budget for the project. CU communicated with the Cherokee Nation regularly.

"The project started as a dream, but eventually all the pieces started coming together"
Karen Conrad
Environmental Services Director-Central

In 2012, all the major players participated in several meetings to discuss ways to move on. Everyone met in the Southern Delaware County Community Center in Kansas, Oklahoma, and shared their ideas and concerns. The 60 people in attendance put their heads together and started thinking of ways to educate and explain how to move forward. Every community had a board member, so every community had a voice.

A NEW IDEA IS BORN

The meetings continued into the next month and on down the road. They discussed rates, debt costs, operation costs, and how much water they needed. The community wanted to know the answers to these questions. The committees put all the details together. They continued to reassure everyone that they were on the right track. The decision came down to quantity versus quality. Instead of building new plants for all the systems involved, the idea of building one system for everyone in the 8-mile radius to share came up. The idea of all systems working together to build one facility for everyone involved brought a new discussion to the table.

In May of 2012, they met to form a “steering committee”, where they elected one person to decide how they were going to move forward. There were six communities. The discussions went back and forth. Phil Ross attended every meeting.

The next steps marked the creation of the South Delaware County Regional Water Authority (SDCRWA). The creation of SDCRWA moved forward with the construction of a new water treatment plant that will enhance service for its current customers and extend service to other nearby communities experiencing drinking water system challenges. The meetings and discussions continued for several years.

CHEROKEE NATION PLANTS A SEED

According to Southwest Ledger News, the Cherokee Nation put up the seed money that paid for the feasibility study and the engineering for the project. Don Wilcoxin of Flint Ridge, general manager of SDCRWA, said, “We owe a big debt of gratitude to the Cherokee Nation, without them, we would never have gotten this done.”

Since none of the small communities were able to afford the project on their own, the project allowed the SDCRWA to assist disadvantaged communities in getting the grants and loans needed. Many details went into finding the support and funding. The huge project’s financing came from the support and construction costs of several sources:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development division
Indian Health Service (IHS)
Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ)
Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB)
South Delaware County Regional Water Authority (SDCRWA)

The financial support and cooperation between these various agencies and local governments make this project unique.

South Delaware County Regional Water Authority

The new treatment plant is below Clear Lake Dam in Flint Ridge, near the old location. The water comes from the Illinois River and Clear Lake in the Flint Ridge Community. The new treatment plant can routinely process two million gallons of raw water per day and more if necessary. The plant also has two new water towers in the Leach and Rose areas, as well as an expansion of the raw water intake capacity at the river.

The five Authority Members are representatives from the Flint Ridge Property Owners Association (POA), The Delaware County Rural Water District #11, along with the towns of Kansas, Colcord and West Siloam Springs make up the newly formed South Delaware County Regional Water Authority.

Although everyone involved had their way of doing things at first, the relationships and cooperation of everyone involved led the project to success. The project finished in December of 2019 and SDCRWA now provides safe, reliable drinking water to several disadvantaged communities in northeastern Oklahoma.

COVID-19 CAUSES A DELAY

In 2020, COVID-19 delayed the process, but eventually, South Delaware County Regional Water Authority received the Aquarius Award for Excellence in System Partnership on December 14, 2020. A National Award given by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). South Delaware County Regional Water Authority was chosen from the 32 nominated projects in 25 states. According to SDCRWA, they are immensely proud of it. It reflects the efforts of the members’ demanding work in the development of this authority.

The program acknowledges DWSRF-funded projects for “exceptional focus” on sustainability, and protection of public health and demonstrates an important level of innovation. Participating states submit a project for consideration each year.

The EPA lists three criteria:

  • The project must address the most serious risk to human health.
  • It must be necessary to ensure compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act
  • It must assist the system most in need, on a per household basis, according to state-determined affordability criteria

The complex and long project was rewarding in the end, thanks to the challenging work and dedication of everyone involved.

The towns of West Siloam Springs, Colcord, Kansas, Flint Ridge, a gated community of approximately 600 customers, Leach, Cookson Hills, and Delaware Rural Water District #11 now have safe drinking water from South Delaware County Regional Water Authority.