© 2021 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
PRT Header Color
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Why The OKC Coalition To Pump Water From Southeast Oklahoma Fell Apart

Yukon City Manager Grayson Bottom says the price to build a new pipeline is too high for his city.
Yukon City Manager Grayson Bottom says the price to build a new pipeline is too high for his city.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Mitchell Logan supervises a pump station near Macomb, the 100-mile Atoka Pipeline's last stop on its way to the OKC metro.

Oklahoma City has been pumping water out of southeast Oklahoma through the Atoka pipeline for 50 years. But in the future, the aging pipeline won’t be able to carry enough water to meet the growing needs of Oklahoma City, let alone the rest of central Oklahoma. The plan is build another pipeline right next to the existing one.

Seventeen central Oklahoma communities formed a partnership with Oklahoma City to build the new 100-mile pipeline to get the water, but that water coalition has crumbled.

The second Atoka pipeline, and another, smaller pipeline that would connect to Sardis Lake, also in the southeast, could quench the growing thirst for all of central Oklahoma, a study commissioned by the coalition concluded.

Oklahoma City Utilities Director Marsha Slaughter says her city’s water future depends on the pipeline.

“Have to, have to. It’s about how big the pipeline will be and whether a third one will be necessary at some point in the future,” she says. “Because we already have 117 miles of pipeline to southeast Oklahoma, it makes sense for us to continue to grow that supply.

Sharing the water, and the costs to get it, seemed to make sense. When the results of the study were presented in 2009, the mantra was clear, when it comes to water: “We’re all in this together.”

Independent Plans

But almost as soon as the study was released, the idea began to fizzle. The No. 1 concern was the high cost: $1 billion for the new Atoka pipeline, and another $300 million or so for the connection to Sardis later. It was too much for Yukon City Manager Grayson Bottom, and most of the cities StateImpact contacted.

Yukon City Manager Grayson Bottom says the price to build a new pipeline is too high for his city.

“When we got to looking at the plans, it was all to go get — they were horribly expensive, horribly expensive. And we were going to be at the end of the line,” Bottom says. “That wasn’t going to work for us.”

Instead, Yukon, Mustang and other cities in Canadian County are eying an expensive solution: building a facility to desalinate groundwater. At a cost of more than $60 million, it’s still the cheaper option.

Tribal Lawsuit

But that’s not the only reason the water partnership fell apart. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations have sued to stop the pipeline. Randy Worden is the executive director of the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District, which provides Lake Thunderbird water to Norman, Midwest City and Del City.

“There’s no guarantee, yet, that Oklahoma City will get what they want,” Worden says. “The tribes are not through. They want to determine just whose water that is. The tribes certainly feel like it’s theirs under treaties.”

Worden says litigation like that can take decades, and he doesn’t blame his three cities for backing out.

Norman held onto the idea longer than any city, but decided last month to focus instead on water reuse and groundwater wells. Like the other cities, it wants to be self-reliant, and Oklahoma City’s Marsha Slaughter understands that desire for independence.

“My experience is that all communities want full control of their own destiny and that water is part of that control,” Slaughter says.

Many of the cities in the proposed partnership were already buying water from Oklahoma City, which is pushing hard to get the pipeline built. Slaughter says OKC’s future water needs depend on it.

And even though other cities have backed away from the pipeline, they may pick up part of the bill. That’s because Slaughter says the only way to pay off a billion dollar pipeline is to make cities pay more for the water they’ve been getting.

Copyright 2021 StateImpact Oklahoma. To see more, visit StateImpact Oklahoma.