In 2003, an idea began to take shape to bring safe drinking water to residents near one of Oklahoma’s most popular recreational lakes.

The idea was met with initial enthusiasm by dozens of water systems, but as the years dragged on, only a group of a few water systems determined to make it a reality.

After more than 17 years, USDA-Rural Development announced that Tenkiller Utility Authority was funded along with assistance from the Cherokee Nation and Indian Health Services (IHS). It will be the largest regionalization project in the state of Oklahoma.

It was a long journey for the water systems, the region’s leaders, the Cherokee Nation, government officials, and the nonprofit assisting all of them — Communities Unlimited.

Communities Unlimited began working with the Lake Tenkiller area in 2003 and has been working alongside the communities ever since, pushing forward through the slow, sometimes frustrating, very detailed but ultimately rewarding process of bringing about a new water utility.

Struggling on Their Own

Lake Tenkiller lies in eastern Oklahoma, just west of the Arkansas border. The lake is known as a popular recreation area, drawing outdoor enthusiasts, boaters and fishermen year-round.

Rural communities dot the landscape around Lake Tenkiller. Each community water system carried its own financial burdens. With small populations and few customers, the systems struggled individually. Some systems needed expensive repairs, others needed better water sources, while others struggled to pay other entities for their water.

They needed to combine their resources to assist one another in providing clean, safe drinking water to their customers. A new regionalized system would allow each small utility to have a say in decision-making instead of being at the mercy of water wholesalers who may or may not give them a position on their water board.

They began to talk to one another about creating a regional water utility, and the idea of the Tenkiller Utility Authority was born. The small utilities formed the utility in the early 2000s and began talking about building their own water treatment facility.

It would take nearly 20 years to make that a reality.

Forming a Plan

Communities Unlimited was contacted to facilitate regular meetings and assist with plans to get the project funded. Staff from Communities Unlimited first met with members of the Tenkiller Utility Authority in 2003 after they had formed the new utility.

The original scope was massive. More than 60 systems throughout central Oklahoma from Sallisaw to north of Talequah expressed an interest in joining the regional water project. But such a large number wasn’t feasible for one regional system. Reaching a consensus on the system’s needs would be difficult, and the logistics would be even more so.

With so many entities going back and forth, initial estimates were around $30-40 million. The problem was that money allocated to the state of Oklahoma at that time for such projects was less than half that amount.

After more than a year of negotiating, the number of communities wanting to connect to the new system dropped to 25-30. But the estimated price was still about $20 million. Negotiations continued, and entities revolved in and out, lowering the numbers further.

The utility needed a cohesive plan. In 2007, Ten Killer Utility Authority hired an engineer to determine what the utility would need in a water system and how much it would cost to construct it. With a properly-organized plan, a system could be created to serve all of the smaller systems efficiently and keep costs down for everyone.

By 2008, the system was finally taking shape. But there was still a long way to go.

Getting Water Rights

As negotiations continued between the water systems, adding and subtracting them to the utility over the years, the Tenkiller Utility Authority worked to tackle another major issue — water rights.

The water would have to come from Lake Tenkiller, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the manmade water reservoir, only allows a certain amount of water to be extracted from the lake.

As the utility moved forward, it discovered that most of the water rights for Lake Tenkiller were already taken. In some cases, those water rights were paid for but weren’t being utilized.

For the next decade, the Tenkiller Utility Authority negotiated with several water rights owners to purchase part of their water rights to collect a total that would cover the initial needs of the utility and future needs.

By the end of the negotiations, the core number of entities had dropped to about seven systems that would lead the project. The system is designed and will be constructed with the plan that more systems can connect later. The seven initial systems represent approximately 10,000 customers.

During this time, engineering reports and environmental studies were being conducted for the water system. Both would be necessary to obtain the funding for construction.

The next step was to get the core entities to sign on with the new water utility officially. The agreements had to be signed so the system could apply for funding from USDA-Rural Development, which would provide the bulk of the financing.

Throughout the years, staff from Communities Unlimited visited the entities and potential clients’ monthly meetings to explain the value of having their own water system. Other water systems pushed back against the project, wanting to sell the water themselves. But in many cases, that would happen without the entities being able to make decisions on water rate increases, should they arise. Communities Unlimited explained the pros and cons of the new utility to each entity at council and special meetings over the years.

Once seven entities signed on, they were finally ready to pursue funding for the water system.

In order to receive federal funding for the project, studies were needed on the census tracts of each potential wholesale water purchaser, and Median Household Income (MHI) numbers needed to be calculated for each census tract. It was a massive project that took several months to complete.

A big boost to the Lake Tenkiller project came from the Cherokee Nation. In September 2018, the Cherokee Nation pledged to assist the project with a $93,850 grant to cover predevelopment costs for the Rural Development funding.

The next month brought a huge milestone to the project. After nearly two years, the long-awaited Engineering Report necessary to get the project underway was submitted to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) for approval. After clarifying a few points brought up by ODEQ, the report was approved and ready to be submitted to USDA-Rural Development as part of the funding application process. From that point on, things began moving quickly, and the project began to snowball toward tangibility.

In March 2019, 16 years from the time Lake Tenkiller Utility Authority was only an idea, the RD Apply process began to obtain the bulk of the funding necessary to construct the new water utility.

Several months later, the Tenkiller Utility Authority received the news they had worked for nearly two decades to hear. USDA-Rural Development announced the project had been awarded a $10.6 million loan and a $4.6 million grant for a total of $15.2 million.

In May 2020, the Cherokee Nation and Indian Health Service (IHS) announced an additional $2.3 million in grants for the project. The funding was the final piece to the puzzle that would give nearly 10,000 Oklahomans access to clean, safe drinking water.

Today, Communities Unlimited continues to work with the Tenkiller Utility Authority on its new water system. Currently, CU staff and Tenkiller Utility Authority are working on completing the requirements in the Letter of Conditions set forth by the USDA-Rural Development loan. Once the paperwork, studies and requirements are complete, construction can begin.

Communities Unlimited will continue to work with the Tenkiller Utility Authority to get the water flowing to their customers.

A special thank you to Bill Hix, Director of Environmental Health & Engineering – Cherokee Nation, and Phill Ross, Communities Unlimited – Oklahoma State Coordinator (Retired) for their contributions to this project.