River-Pooping Gorilla

Editorial Analysis

Is it possible metropolitan mayors are ignorant or practicing sleight-of-hand (that would make a professional magician proud) upon the public passion for Arkansas River development?  Bixby Mayor Ray Bowen has said economic development along the river begins and ends with one issue: getting water into the river.  Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor was quoted as saying that all the mayors along the river agree the highest priority is getting water into the river.

First things first, folks: please update or remove your own municipal waste facilities.  They are stinking to high heaven on our river and no matter how pretty proposed trails may be; if users gag along the way – they will not be popular. 


The noxious odor emanating from multiple municipal wastewater treatment plants and pipe is, in some locations, 700 times above the threshold humans can smell – as often as 2,000 times a year.  Worse, the most odiferous City of Tulsa facility abuts the I-44 corridor, thus convincing thousands of travelers daily that Tulsa stinks – not exactly conducive to a reputation as a clean city or much inspiration to stop and smell the not-roses.

Wastewater treatment infrastructure is the ten-ton gorilla which municipal officials have failed to address, but is something that is clearly needed and documented in the Tulsa Comprehensive Wastewater System Study, issued February 2003, and in the Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant Odor Control Study, conducted from July 17 through September 30 of 2006.

Once employed by PennWell Publishing in Tulsa as founding online editor of Water World, a publication for professionals in the municipal water and wastewater industry, I have toured all the Tulsa facilities.  When they were built, all had – and even now still have – odor controls in place.  However, the Southside Plant is old and even at top operating standards with all controls in place and well maintained – the plant stinks.  Its technology is outdated.  Any operating mistake or equipment breakdown dramatically increases odor.

Sources within the wastewater industry believe that at the current location of the Southside Plant, no multiple millions of public dollars could remove the odor at or immediately beyond the fence line.  It doesn’t help that the stink tends to settle in less breezy river valleys

The Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority governs wastewater treatment facilities, and the City of Tulsa Web site lists Mayor Taylor as their “Assistant Secretary.”  Other board members include Jack Neely, Richard Sevenoaks, Richard L. Hudson, R. Louis Reynolds, Patty Eaton and Jim Cameron.  The city Web page notes that “TMUA’s primary responsibilities are to manage, construct, and maintain Tulsa’s water works and sanitary sewer systems, and to fix rates for water and sewer services rendered within its boundaries.”

Independent industry officials note that with the revenue stream from area water bills, the Authority may be able to construct new facilities by pledging future revenue without increasing taxes, much like the Tulsa Parking Authority utilizes bonds.  Regardless, why have these board members not spoken up during discussions on river development?

Mayor Taylor’s office was called for comment prior to publication of this analysis, but no response has been received as of this posting.  As her office may provide comment, this story will be updated or another posted.  Sewage treatment and stink on the Arkansas River is an issue of public concern, and Tulsa Today will continue to follow developments – or the lack thereof.

In the lead story on Sunday, February 11, Tulsa World reporter P.J. Lassek detailed a stunningly generous $12.4 million gift from the Kaiser Family Foundation to the River Parks Authority to “create a premier trail system from 11th to 71st streets on both sides of the river.”  The plan does not show a trail on the west river bank from 51st to 61st Streets.  Rather, the trail goes up Turkey Mountain, but not far enough away to avoid the smell of the Southside Plant at 51st Street.

Elizabeth Shreeve, a principal with SWA, the California architectural and urban design firm hired by the Kaiser Foundation to work on the plan, was quoted as saying, “You could take a canoe at 31st Street and spend the day going down the river, then drop the canoe off at 71st Street and rent a bike and ride back on the new, improved trail system.”

Better bring nose plugs and a camera to take a picture of that big pipe pouring treated sewer water into the river you are paddling.

There are three major recognized alternatives available for Tulsa.  First, the sewage currently treated at Southside could be piped further south to the Haikey Creek Plant, which is newer and could be expanded to handle the influx of effluent.  The second alternative is to install “In Sewer” technology to reduce the odor.  The third alternative is to rebuild the Southside Plant higher on a hill, with “Smell Stacks” to better disperse the stink at a higher altitude.

Not addressing the problem, economists suggest, is more expensive in lost development opportunity than any one of the three solutions.  Tulsans and all who wish the city well want to see Arkansas River opportunity realized.  Is it going to get cheaper if we let old facilities age further?  The Southside Plant is reaching the end of its designed life.  One expert suggested that $20 million spent in repair would not fix the Southside Plant smell – and that is about 10 percent of the cost of a new plant.

Apparently oblivious, Tulsa Mayor Taylor was quoted in the Sunday story as saying, “Everyone is doing what is necessary to ensure we have prepared the palette for responsible development of the river.”

With due respect, your palette stinks and your Public Works Department knows it stinks.

Not to ignore Bixby Mayor Bowen, his city could easily tie into a sewage line to the Haikey Creek Plant that runs directly beside the current Bixby Sewage Lagoons.  However, because the City of Tulsa would charge a fee, Bixby would prefer to continue to use their old stinky treatment ponds – which happen to be located by a park.  No wonder people don’t recreate there much.  (By the way, some park land adjacent to a sewage treatment plant is watered with that plant’s discharge water, so don’t drop your hot dog in the grass too often.)

In a related issue, palette preparation – if not simple due diligence by Bixby and Tulsa – would suggest that each city use existing planning departments and zoning bodies to establish standards for river development within their own municipal boundaries.  Both have the power to do so, but neither city has.  Oh well, it’s only been a hundred years.

Unfortunately, public patience with poor political performance evaporates quicker than, well, wastewater.  Arm-wrestle over who is leading this river development circus later, but the public wants all 42 miles of the Arkansas River clean, safe, accessible, protected and developed coherently in transparent communication with the people paying taxes (directly or by fee) to have public work done, whether it involves digging a canal to keep water visible or building islands to channel water around.

Yes, at some point and some level, taxes are usually required to build public infrastructure (unless you allow private companies to build public infrastructure and make a profit from that investment).

Tulsa has been gifted and uniquely blessed throughout history by successful individuals and families who contributed greatly to our high-quality community life.  As the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the William K. Warren Foundation continue that philanthropic tradition in helping Tulsa County grow Arkansas River development, virtually all Tulsans sincerely appreciate their effort.

However, the son of simple retailers would suggest a few things for the foundations to consider.  First, public input does not mean making all the decisions, then making a pitch, then ignoring what the public says.  Next, please remember that some wisdom can be found locally and, please, hire people able to tell the king when he has no clothes.  Genteel as you good folk may be, someone must be able to enter the fray in public debate with facts, strength, humor, and without sounding condescending. 

Public officials must understand not all development ideas are right for Tulsa, and constituents will vote no if the package is not processed properly, appropriately certified, and presented well.  (See Tulsa Project and Tulsa Time for more detail.)

Regardless of what river brilliance makes its way onto the evolving Arkansas River Corridor Plan, the public is THE major player – and our pennies together are most likely needed to make the infrastructure magic happen. 
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 14 February 2007 )