Thinking bigger may be the right solution in rural southeastern Oklahoma.

Surrounding most lakes across the country, you will find small housing developments with their own water and/or wastewater systems. Many of these were constructed by developers who have long since turned over the ownership and maintenance of the systems to the homeowners. As time goes by, the needs of the systems start to outgrow the ability of the homeowners to pay, and these groups do not know where to turn.

In Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, there is a community of landowners residing in what was originally intended to be an RV park. These landowners purchased lots from a developer who promised water service and required the purchasers to install septic systems. However, these lots are too small and too close together for the septic systems to work properly. Also, the water lines that were brought into the development were not properly designed or installed. The developer purchased a master meter from a nearby water district to serve the office and bathhouse and then ran the lines from there throughout the development with no engineering design work or primacy agency review. The developer then collected a monthly water bill from each landowner and, for a while, paid a monthly bill to the water district—at least until he sold the development to another out-of-state developer. The new owner stopped paying for water, and the water district shut off the master meter. The water district noted a large water loss spike soon after and, in their investigation of what they thought might be a leak in the area, discovered that lines had been tapped to provide water to the cluster of homes, bypassing the master meter. The water district shut off the water service, and the residents of the development found out that the money they had paid for water was not paid forward to the water supplier.

The water district, at that time, informed the homeowners that it could not provide water directly to the homes without primacy agency–approved documentation of acceptable septic tanks. This left the homeowners without the ability to have water piped into their homes, and they resorted to hauling water for all their needs. The homeowners formed a rural water and sewer district and applied for funding for a water distribution system from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development (USDA-RD). Grant funding was available for the water project, which would have left the new water system with a small loan to repay. However, the water district that would supply the new system with potable water could not do so until a sewer collection and treatment system was constructed. This is where the wheels fell off the bus, as the new water and sewer district could not secure sufficient grant funding to cover the cost of the construction of the collection system and the purchase of adequate land for a sewer lagoon. Without a major influx of grant funding, the costs were not affordable to the current residents to repay the loan.

In an effort to help these landowners, the rural water district installed a coin- operated water metering station where the residents could purchase water on-site, but they still must haul the water to their homes.

These homeowners have exhausted their savings on the purchase of their lots and the cost of the mobile homes in which they live and can afford neither to move nor to pay the high monthly bill for the completion of a water and sewer project to serve the community. Most of these homeowners are elderly; all full- time residents are low-income. Other developments in the area have larger lots, which are occupied by more affluent landowners who can afford to meet the conditions of the primacy agency for the septic systems required to be members of the rural water district.

At one point, the rural water district proposed a project to provide sewer service to all the developments within its jurisdiction. Still, homeowners with acceptable septic systems were not willing to become part of the project and take on monthly sewer bills. This left too few homeowners scattered across a large area to make such a project feasible.

Meanwhile, Nearby…

In a neighboring county, a small group of homeowners formed a homeowner’s association (HOA) many years ago and installed a community sewer system. In the early 1990s, the primacy agency required additional lagoons to be constructed to provide adequate treatment of wastewater. As a non-profit corporation, the group was eligible for funding through USDA-RD. The system now consists of an overflow lagoon that was converted from the original small lagoon, a small lift station, and two larger lagoons. The system operated at first on a volunteer basis, with homeowner association officials giving their time to take samples, keep everything mowed, and maintain records for the system.

The volunteer idea worked well for several years—until everyone grew tired of these responsibilities. At that time, homeowners agreed to pay a monthly flat rate that has increased over time to pay someone to come in and provide maintenance to the facility.

As the original residents grew older and started leaving the area, the mobile homes in which they lived started to need maintenance and repairs and were sold to be used as rental properties. Those that were not sold for this purpose or that remained unoccupied by a full-time resident have fallen into disrepair. This has reduced the number of homeowners to help cover the costs of the system. Most of the residents are of retirement age living on fixed incomes or are very low-income families.

Pumps for the lift station had been repaired until there was no other option than to replace them, yet the system has little funds with which to cover this cost. Within the past few years, the pumps were disconnected, so the only wastewater storage they now have is the original lagoon that was deemed too small years ago. The lagoon has not been maintained, and sludge buildup has greatly diminished the capacity of the pond. Without the pumps, no wastewater is being sent to the larger lagoons. When the smaller lagoon cannot handle the wastewater, especially during events of rainfall, sinks and tubs at many of the homes are very slow to drain. The leadership of the HOA has paid for septage, waste removal from septic tanks, pumping, and treatment at a nearby town with a wastewater treatment plant. The septage pumping is done at a point where the transport line has been tapped and left open for this purpose.

Making Connections Toward a Solution

Finally, a funder for some system improvements mentioned that the HOA should use the assistance of Communities Unlimited (CU) technical assistance providers (TAPs) to review next steps and offer advice for how to help the community be whole again.

When the TAPs made a site visit, they used the opportunity to notify the HOA that some of their current practices were in violation of Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ ) regulations and to discuss the possibility of regionalization through the sharing of an operator. The HOA may consider working with another system in the area to transfer ownership if that can be accomplished. The HOA representative indicated that they have attempted to get an operator from another system to work part-time for them but have had difficulty obtaining a contract for this.

The TAPs helped the system complete a Request for Qualifications to be used in selecting an engineer. They later made a site visit with the project engineer to discuss the various points of violation that need to be addressed, and the engineer will provide an estimate for preparing an engineering study and report that can be used to seek financing for improvements. The TAPs will assist the HOA with registering with System for Award Management,, and making an application for an engineering grant through USDA-RD. And they will work with rural water systems in the area and nearby towns to obtain contact information for other small lakeside sewer systems to see if regionalization is an option and can be achieved.

Regardless of which path the system may choose, regionalization would help these residents have a supply of potable water and a sanitation system that would protect the environment. Since these are lakeside communities, the water quality of the lake will be impacted in the future if nothing is done. Many surrounding towns and rural water systems with water treatment facilities pull raw water from the lake, so the impact goes far beyond these two groups of homes and those who would use the lake for recreational purposes. Without technical assistance to help guide the communities to improve operations and to facilitate meetings to discuss regionalization, these systems will continue with inadequate water service and be potential polluters of the area’s water supply source.

Gaylene Riley

Communities Unlimited
Oklahoma State Coordinator