Choctaw Nation to Help Local Water Utilities

Ethan Schuth, water resources manager for the Choctaw Nation, plans to expand the assistance provided by the tribe to local water authorities in southeastern Oklahoma.

Thanks to a grant received by the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, public water systems in southeastern Oklahoma will soon receive assistance to operate more efficiently and safely.

Heightened state and federal regulations designed to protect the public health are more difficult to meet than in the past. Many rural public water suppliers do not have the technical knowledge to remain in compliance. As existing treatment plants and water distribution systems age, the problem may grow worse before it gets better.

"We're becoming concerned that repeated violations by public water systems may indicate infrastructure or treatment issues that need to be addressed to entice new businesses or residents to come to southeastern Oklahoma," said Ethan Schuth, the Choctaw Nation's water resources manager. "We'd like to help local communities stabilize their public water systems and remain in compliance."

The $197,454 grant by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, will allow the Choctaw Nation to assist the City of Antlers, Town of Talihina, and Sardis Lake Water Authority examine their operations and determine cost-effective ways to reduce or end the instances in which their operations run afoul of regulations. Antlers and Talihina have both experienced repeated violations in recent years.

The Choctaw Nation's water resource management office has worked closely with all three public water systems. In addition to administering the grant, the Choctaw Nation will contribute its staff and expertise and serve as project manager of the study.

"Clean water is something everyone expects and requires," said Schuth. "When public water systems experience problems and issue public alerts, or are cited for falling outside safety codes, this reduces the confidence business owners and citizens have in the ability of their local governments to operate effectively. We want southeastern Oklahoma to be fully competitive with other areas."

The Choctaw Nation is interested in taking a more active role in helping the communities within its 10,922-square-mile service area manage their water and wastewater better. "We hope to offer both technical and financial assistance in the near future. This grant is our first step toward offering technical assistance," Schuth said.

"A lot about our operation is electronic—the equipment is highly computerized and complex, and is expensive to repair," said Mike Taylor, who manages Antlers' water treatment system. Taylor noted that it is much harder to remain in compliance with water treatment regulations now than it was even a few years ago. The machinery is expensive to repair or replace, and staffing can be an issue. "It's especially challenging for us in small towns," he said. "We can't afford outside consultants and even if we did, they don't really understand the unique environment we operate under. The Choctaw Nation does."

Don Faulkner, a trustee for the Town of Talihina and its Public Works Authority, agreed. "The circumstances here are pretty challenging. Our operating environment is complex. We're very thankful to have the Choctaw Nation help us identify vulnerabilities in our treatment system. I'm anxious to sit down with their engineers," Faulkner said.

A key objective of the grant is to learn of ways in which the Antlers, Talihina, and Sardis Lake water authorities may adjust their treatment processes at low or no cost. Should costs be incurred, the Choctaw Nation plans to use its existing relationship with the Oklahoma Rural Development program to secure funds for these utilities and may contribute funds of its own to stabilize their operations.

"Contributing our know-how across southeastern Oklahoma helps us be good friends, neighbors, and partners," Schuth said. "Our end goal is making our area be the best place to live and work, bar none."

Water testing
Antlers water treatment plant manager Mike Taylor tests the town's water every day for impurities. Each faucet delivers water from a different source. One delivers raw, unfiltered water from the Kiamichi River, another delivers treated water from the Antlers water towers.

Mike Taylor
My background as a Navy electronics technician has come in handy, Antlers water manager Mike Taylor says. These plants are highly computerized.