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Lawton officials attempt to mitigate East Cache Creek issues amid growing concerns

Ninemile Creek flows into East Cache Creek, creating a confluence and striking contrast between where the two bodies of water meet on May 17, 2024.
Sarah Liese
Ninemile Creek flows into East Cache Creek, creating a confluence and striking contrast between where the two bodies of water meet on May 17, 2024.

After a TikTok video went viral about water pollution in East Cache Creek, City of Lawton officials have explained their plan to restore water levels.

Brian Hart fished in East Cache Creek as a child and played on the lush green land his grandmother owned in southwest Oklahoma. Hart said the land was originally acquired through allotment in the early 1900s and has been passed down through generations. Now, it is his to look after.

“You can tell there’s a lot of history,” he said.

Hart, who is a citizen of the Comanche Nation, fondly remembers hearing stories of his grandmother playing near a large oak tree on the property, which extends to a confluence where East Cache Creek and Ninemile Creek meet southeast of Lawton.

This confluence and East Cache Creek, in particular, are now at the center of a problem affecting people who reside near the water, like Hart.

In April, a TikTok video called the creek’s health into question at a Comanche Nation business meeting, spreading the word to more than 600,000 viewers.

“It has come to my attention this week that the City of Lawton — under their next construction of the wastewater plant — has been dumping into Comanche waters solid untreated waste into East Cache Creek,” Milton Sovo Jr. said in the TikTok. “And we have homes all along that creek. We have homes and water sources for our tribal members in Walters, and we use the Sulton Creek down there.”

Hart said the water on his property had recently exuded an unpleasant odor and appeared noticeably dark. He has also noticed waste drifting in the creek, like used tampons and raw debris.

He said if his grandmother were alive, she would have been outraged and made sure it was restored.

“She would’ve cussed the city,” Hart said with a chuckle. “ Yeah, that’s comical. But she would’ve had a fighting spirit about this.”

Lawton officials say multiple problems feed into bigger issue

In April, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a Notice of Violation to the City of Lawton. The notice highlights exceeding limits of total suspended solids and dissolved oxygen levels, among other problems.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, extreme dissolved oxygen levels can negatively affect aquatic life, sometimes resulting in death. The same goes for extreme levels of total suspended solids, which can interfere with a fish’s buoyancy in high concentrations.

City of Lawton Public Utilities Director Rusty Whisenhunt said the results of the last round of aquatic testing in January indicated the creek water did not negatively affect the reproduction or lifecycle of the species tested. He said they passed the test.

The Comanche Nation's water quality coordinator Tito Lindsey has also monitored pollution and aquatic life in East Cache Creek and makes year-round visits to Brian’s Hart property to conduct water testing.

He said his department collects samples from the north side of the confluence all the way to Apache in Caddo County.

“So, we get to see the healthy side of East Cache Creek, opposed to after the confluence from Ninemile,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey said the E. coli levels on the north side of the creek were healthy, showing 108 counts, while the side of East Cache Creek after the confluence reached levels higher than he was able to record, at about 2,400.

Despite the high problematic water levels, Lindsey’s aquatic life testing results showed no problems for the organisms in the creek, aligning with the city’s findings

Tito Lindsey and Brian Hart discuss the creek’s health near a field on Hart’s property.
Sarah Liese
Tito Lindsey and Brian Hart discuss the creek’s health near a field on Hart’s property.

The City of Lawton’s news page sent out several press releases about the unhealthy state of the water and DEQ’s notice of violation. Rusty Whisenhunt admitted the discrepancies and explained that one big issue with the water flowing into the creek from the plant is that what comes in must go out.

“It's basically a continuous process,” Whisenhunt said. “And there's no way to store, compliant or not compliant. There's no place to — you can't stop it.”

According to Whisenhunt, the only way to stop wastewater from leaving the plant is to shut everything down. He also noted DEQ has known about their test results, as they have to self-report the numbers to them monthly.

“And they issued a notice of violation for discharge, which we were in violation of discharge limits,” Whisenhunt said. “But it's for the same discharge limits that our consent order is for that we're working with the process plant process.”

Whisenhunt explained the plant’s problems did not begin this year.

He said a flood occurred in 2017 and ruined a lot of equipment. But he also noted that it wasn’t the only time something like that had happened.

“I replaced the equipment, ” Whisenhunt said. “It flooded again, and it did three times in three different years.”

After being pummeled by floods and equipment failures, the wastewater plant fell out of compliance – prompting DEQ to issue a consent order in 2021.

According to Whisenhunt, the Public Utilities Department took over operations around that time and hired Garver Engineering to help devise a plan to rehabilitate and design a new wastewater plant outside a floodplain.

The plan to get the facility back in compliance is estimated to cost about $370 million and will be executed in three separate phases.

The city is currently in the first phase, which costs $85 million and is scheduled to be completed in August 2025.

Actions have been taken to replace existing equipment, which was originally used when the plant was built in the 1970s. But, according to Whisenhunt, some of the new equipment has not arrived, even though it was ordered 18 months ago. He said the delay is not surprising given the amount of equipment ordered.

The second phase is still being designed and developed. According to the City’s Notice of Violation Response, “this Phase II design will provide a new UV disinfection facility, a new solids handling facility, as well as other improvements across the site.” This phase is estimated to cost between $85 to $100 million.

Tito Lindsey observes East Cache Creek on Brian Hart’s property and conducts monthly tests to monitor the water.
Sarah Liese
Tito Lindsey observes East Cache Creek on Brian Hart’s property and conducts monthly tests to monitor the water.

The city’s response did not provide information regarding the third phase, except that some action items moved from Phase III to Phase II due to urgency. According to Whisenhunt, the goal is to operate a new, fully functioning facility with expanded capabilities and no problems staying in compliance.

For now, workers at the plant said they are trying their best to stay compliant and not exceed water level limits. Whisenhunt said the next round of aquatic testing at the City of Lawton Wastewater Treatment Plant is scheduled for the end of May, and the test results will take about 30 days to complete.

Whisenhunt said the larger debris Brian Hart saw in East Cache Creek was not caused by the city’s wastewater plant.

“Leaving the plant, it basically was all liquid,” Whisenhunt said. “If there was larger stuff coming down the creek, it was coming from somewhere else. It was not coming from here.”

The polluted waters also stretch to his nation’s sacred powwow grounds, where the Comanche Homecoming gathering will occur in July.

As Tito Lindsey explained, the pollution expands 26 stream miles and could affect different populations, from cattle drinking the creek water to people who use it recreationally for swimming and fishing — activities like Hart used to do.

Lindsey said he is keeping a watchful eye over the creek to ensure all Comanche citizens will be safe during the homecoming and beyond, while Hart hopes the waters will return to normal for future generations.

“I would like to see the city do the absolute best that they can in claiming the environment and cleaning the waterways for future generations,” Hart said.

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