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Oklahoma Legislature allocates more than $440 million to water infrastructure projects, with clear focus on economic development

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Oklahoma Department of Commerce
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okcommerce.gov
The legislature approved pandemic relief funds for water infrastructure to support a new port in northeastern Oklahoma. The Port of Inola would lie just east of the Port of Catoosa (pictured above).

Most of that water money has been set aside for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board to distribute later. According to a press release from the state legislature, the OWRB will get $100 million to support the needs of smaller water systems and to restore high-needs dams. Tribal governments plan to match another $57 million and use those funds for water projects on tribal lands. And the state has set another $130.5 million for future water projects.

But the legislature also approved funding for seven specific water infrastructure projects. One of the American Rescue Plan Act’s stated goals is to reinvigorate the American economy, and that theme is clear among the selected water projects.

Nearly all of the water projects are to support commercial ventures that promise profits Oklahomans might not see for decades. They include a new port and industrial park east of Tulsa, a reinvigoration to Oklahoma’s only spaceport in Burns Flat and support for tourism at Lake Murray. All these economic development projects require improvements to aging water and sewer infrastructure.

You can read more about each of these projects below.

An underutilized spaceport at Burns Flat

Burns Flat in western Oklahoma is home to one of only 14 FAA-licensed spaceports in the United States. According to the Oklahoma Air and Space Port’s website, it’s the only one whose spaceflight corridor isn’t in restricted airspace or a military zone.

However, aerospace companies who have considered partnering with the spaceport have raised questions about its capacity to serve their needs for water and internet.

While discussing this project on the Senate floor, Sen. Lonnie Paxton of Tuttle said that the spaceport’s future depends on updates to its aging wastewater system.

“This area needs to be improved or basically abandoned,” Paxton said. “We’ve decided this is an area that can be improved.”

The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority requested $30 million in ARPA funds for improvements to the water and internet infrastructure for Burns Flat and its spaceport. The legislature voted to approve $4.25 million.

A planned cargo port in Inola

The Port of Catoosa sees 13,000 tons of cargo each month and is home to over 70 companies. Now, the Tulsa Port Authority wants to develop a second port and industrial park in Inola.

The proposed Port of Inola is 2,200 acres along the Verdigris River about 25 miles east of downtown Tulsa. But despite its convenient location for both barges and trains, the town of Inola isn’t quite ready to support a major industrial park.

In its application for ARPA funds, the Rogers County Port Authority said that Inola’s wastewater treatment capacity is the one thing holding it back from being “ultra-competitive for large-scale industrial projects. At the time the application was written, Inola was working to fix problems with their wastewater lines that had put them out of compliance with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

The Port Authority requested nearly $36 million to improve water infrastructure for both the town of Inola and its potential port. The legislature approved $14 million in ARPA funds for the project.

A future commercial and industrial area outside of Tulsa

Developing the Port of Inola is one part of a plan to establish an economy-boosting commercial corridor in northeastern Oklahoma. Another stop along that corridor is Fair Oaks Ranch: about 5,000 acres of land the City of Tulsa hopes to fill with homes, retailers and industrial facilities.

The city and the Tulsa Authority for Economic Opportunity requested just over $57 million to fund upgrades for the water infrastructure that serves that area in anticipation of future growth.

The legislature voted to approve $50 million for this project. That’s one of the largest chunks of ARPA funds Oklahoma dedicated to a single project rather than a multi-project grant program or statewide investments.

A growing biomedical park in Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City has been working to develop its Innovation District — an area east of downtown that stretches from Automobile Alley to the University of Oklahoma’s research campus.

The water infrastructure that serves this area and its surrounding neighborhoods is aging and has limited capacity, according to the city’s ARPA application. The legislature voted to approve $8 million of the city’s $50 million request to upgrade that infrastructure.

An anticipated expansion of Tinker Air Force Base

Oklahoma City also applied for funds to move a pipe that carries water from Lake Thunderbird to Del City. The pipe lies under land that will be part of an eastward expansion to Tinker Air Force Base.

The legislature approved the city’s full request for $35 million to relocate the pipe. According to reporting by The Oklahoman, the expansion of Tinker AFB is intended to increase the base’s mission capacity and bring more jobs to the area.

A commercial airpark in Ardmore

As Oklahoma’s oldest and largest state park, Lake Murray attracts visitors and businesses to Ardmore. But according to two ARPA applications from the Southern Oklahoma Water Corporation, the area’s water infrastructure is unable to keep up with current demand. The SOWC said that’s standing in the way of growth and development in the area.

One application requested funds to replace three old and undersized water mains with new pipe. The other sought support for a new water treatment plant on Lake Murray State Park land.

The Ardmore Development Authority also submitted two applications for ARPA funds to improve infrastructure at the Ardmore Industrial Airpark. Neither application specifically mentions water infrastructure, but they describe the Ardmore Industrial Airpark’s potential as a cargo hub.

The legislature approved $17.1 million for water projects in Ardmore. A legislative press release indicated that those funds were for water infrastructure to serve the city and the Ardmore Industrial Airpark, but the bill’s language doesn’t make it clear which application received those funds.

A leaky water system at Lake Lugert-Altus

Only one of the selected water projects doesn’t seem to be tied to projected economic growth. It’s an effort to prevent water loss from Lake Altus-Lugert.

The system that delivers water from Lake Lugert-Altus to nearby treatment plants loses over a third of the water to leaks. The lake can’t spare all that lost water—it currently sits about 24 feet lower than normal.

The legislature approved the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District’s request for $25 million to fix those leaks.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

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