When the U.S. Senate Public Works and Environment committee met this week to explore water infrastructure challenges in rural and underserved communities, it got some answers from an Oklahoma official.
Shellie Chard, Water Quality Division Director at the Oklahoa Department of Environmental Quality was among those who testified how local water investments are having significant economic impacts for the region.
Among the Senators was Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mission who isalso the Ranking Member of the Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee. He argued that the most beneficial water infrastructure investments occur when state and local-level perspectives are accounted for, and states need flexibility with federal dollars to address their own individual infrastructure challenges.
Senator Mullin: How does water infrastructure investment contribute to economic development for local communities in Oklahoma?
Ms. Chard: It is much needed, and it can have significant impact. A great example is the small city of Inola, OK with just under 1,800 population. They were able to work with the state department of commerce, our SRF funding programs, our state financial assistance programs, and were able to obtain about $60 million in funding in order to do some engineering planning, to construct and improve water and wastewater infrastructure, were able to attract an international paper company to come and build on a site there. They now have a new neighbor, a solar panel company has built their first facility in the U.S. in Inola, OK. The port area, Port of Catoosa, has now expanded. There’s the port of Inola so that we can now ship goods in and out…They have brought in about 1,400 jobs and a total of about one billion dollars of investment in a community of about 1,800. They couldn’t do that without the investment in water infrastructure and wastewater money. The questions these companies ask us is, “Is there enough land?” and then immediately, “Do we have enough potable water?” and “Do we have adequate wastewater treatment services?” That is what is allowing this incredible growth.
Senator Mullin: I think a lot of people take that for granted. The small town that I live in in Westville, it’s a small town of less than 1,200 people…The federal funding has so many strings attached, there’s so many hoops you have to jump through, a lot of these small towns just don’t have the ability to do it. That’s what we’re hearing from all of our witnesses. We need flexibility if we are really going to go after the rural areas. It’s an economic engine that drives the economy and we are here to try to help them, but we are also the ones creating the barriers…This is one of the areas where we are on the same page.
Senator Mullin: We have to think outside the box when we are talking about delivering these systems and what is working and what is not. No one can say that we can’t improve. Sometimes we try to improve in Congress by regulating…if these small rural water departments could fix it with the money, then it would be fixed.
It’s insane some of the regulations coming out of these systems. This is why I was talking to Shellie earlier about it being better to be regulated at a local level because they bring the human side to it. It isn’t just black and white. Not every system is the same…. One size does not fit all, and it will not fit all. We need to give these states, these local municipalities, and rural waters, flexibility to do their job. We all want to drink water. If you live there, there’s a pretty good chance you’re drinking the water you’re treating. There’s a pretty good incentive by itself.
Senator Mullin: What are the biggest challenges small and rural communities are facing right now?
Ms. Chard: There are so many challenges they are facing. What we see right now is we are trying to help them get the infrastructure funding that they need so that they can comply with the infrastructure regulations that are required to comply with. We need to be able to help them from a technical assistance angle. They have rate issues, they don’t have the expertise to set appropriate rates, they may not have the technical expertise to run the facilities that have been designed for them.
Source: Mullin press release