Utility officials defend rate increases

Wednesday, 07 May 2008
Representatives of the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority (TMUA) and Tulsa Utility Board stand behind their recommendation to increase FY 2008-09 utility rates, noting the crucial importance of investing in the maintenance of Tulsa’s water and wastewater plants and distribution system.  This will be the third such increase in as many years.

In a written statement, Jack Neely, chairman of the TMUA, said, “The TMUA members thoroughly weigh the needs required to manage the water and wastewater systems for the benefit of the citizens of Tulsa against the expense for our fellow citizens.

“Next year’s rate increases are vital to support the critical maintenance needs and capital improvements, without even addressing other high-priority issues. Without the rate adjustments, we will struggle to maintain the systems, and will find ourselves with water and sewer systems in the future that are in the same conditions as our streets are today.

“While unpleasant, we must reinvest in Tulsa’s aging infrastructure, and these rate adjustments are essential so we don’t fall further behind,” Neely concluded.

The lack of adequate investment in the water and sanitary sewer systems, as well as stormwater drainage, can lead to federal government fines and ultimately failure of the equipment needed to meet regulatory requirements and keep Tulsa’s water safe. Inadequate public funding now also translates to higher costs for water and sewer services in the future. Until 2005, the City was under federal orders to complete capital improvement projects to the sewer system to keep overflows from occurring. More than $500 million was invested in sewer lines across the city and now they must be cleaned and maintained to keep them free of debris and blockages from tree roots and grease. Maintaining an adequate public investment in sewer lines is essential to avoid overflows and regulatory violations.

With the proposed rate adjustment, the average bill for a single family of four for water and sewer services will remain below five of the seven peer cities. In the Tulsa metro area, Tulsa’s combined water and sewer bill for average usage is below six of seven surburban communities.

Tulsa’s utility bills include fees for water, wastewater, stormwater and refuse services provided by the city. There is no increase in refuse fees anticipated for Fiscal Year 2009.

The rate for water, wastewater and stormwater would increase the average monthly bill for a single family home by $2.44.

The City of Tulsa last adjusted rates for water in October 2006. Following 10 years of stationary rates, the water rate was increased 9.6 percent in 2006. There was no rate increase for water in 2007.

Wastewater fees increased in 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2007 by various amounts.

From 1985 until 2006, Tulsa was required to address deficiencies and to expand the City’s sewage collection and treatment systems after receiving multiple administrative orders and unfunded mandates from the EPA. They addressed chronic sanitary sewer overflows through rehabilitation of the collection system and increasing the collection and treatment capacity of the system. The resulting work (233 capital projects) required dedicated funds from 5-year and 15-year capital improvement plans, and cost over $500 million, leaving little money available for other needs.

The Consent Order Case and the mandated work were completed by the required date of January 1, 2006.

“Tulsa has been blessed with visionary leaders who foresaw the necessity of having high-quality water in order to meets the needs of a growing Tulsa and the metro area,” said Rick Hudson, vice-chair of the TMUA.  “The fact is that our system must be adequately maintained and future growth must be provided for. The same is true with our wastewater system. We are barely able to meet the maintenance needs now with our income based on existing rates.

“If we fail to be fiscally responsible to adequately fund the maintenance and future growth requirements we will find ourselves in the same situation very soon as we now are in with our streets. Once our systems deteriorate past a certain point, they can no longer economically be maintained and they must be completely rebuilt and expensive equipment must be replaced at a cost that is far greater than the small rate increases that are required now.

“It’s the classic case of Pay me now or pay me a LOT more later," Hudson concluded.

Public Works Director Charles Hardt cautioned that failure to address routine maintenance and necessary equipment upgrades will result in state and federal administrative and consent orders which would cost the city millions of dollars.
“It’s like an automobile,” Hardt said. “You can either take care of it, maintain it through the years so that it has a long life of service, or you can neglect the car, and deal with tire blow-outs, broken belts and engine failure. An increase in utility fees is crucial to seeing that our water and sewage treatment plants and miles of storm water drains do not fail our citizens in the future.”


Tulsa has 2200 miles of water line crisscrossing Tulsa. Currently, the cost for replacing water lines is about $17 per inch of pipe diameter, e.g. a 10-inch pipe costs approximately $170 per foot to replace. On arterial and non-arterial streets, line replacement occurs at the same time as street repairs in non-emergency situations. On streets without accompanying street repair, only 1-2 miles of line are replaced each year due to funding constraints.
Currently there are approximately 180 miles of water line are two-inch pipes, which afford no ability to provide fire protection. It is the City’s goal to upgrade older 2-inch waterlines in neighborhoods to improve service.  Current funding levels allow the City to complete only a couple of projects per year, 1 to 2 miles.
Rehabilitation of these lines is driven by street work, so that excavation and repair of the lines can be done during pavement replacement. Currently within the City, 16-18 miles of waterline are replaced or added each year.  This is less than 1 percent of the total waterlines in the City’s distribution system.

In addition to line replacement, the two water treatment plants, Mohawk and A.B. Jewell, must be maintained. The A.B. Jewell plant is 40 years old. At ABJ, the high service pumps are over 30 years old and need replacement before they fail. The same is true of two clarifiers, original equipment in place since 1969. A major plant improvement will be required by 2015 in order to keep up with current and projected water demands. Mohawk WTP, originally built in the 1920s but completely rebuilt ten years ago, requires ongoing maintenance and replacement of smaller equipment to protect the City’s investment.

The Quality Assurance Lab that services our water system is also in need of critical upgrades in order to meet the safety standards required by the EPA. Much of the equipment and facility is obsolete, and inefficient in performing the daily regulatory analyses that the EPA requires the lab to perform.


Recent reviews of Tulsa’s North Side Sewer Treatment Plant have indicated that 81% of the equipment has either exceeded its useful life, or will do so within 5 years. Estimated cost for replacement or repair is $100 million.

At the Southside Sewage Treatment Plant, 29 % of the equipment is at or near the end of its useful life for an estimated cost of $37 million for replacement or repair.

The current budget for the treatment plants includes $3.3 million for capital equipment replacement. Last year, the city spent 1.1 million in unanticipated repairs at the treatment plants.

Tulsa operates four sewage treatment plants, approximately 1,933 miles of collection lines, 53 lift stations, 400 miles of force mains and collects and treats an average flow of 64.4 millions gallons of wastewater per day.
The proposed FY 09 CIP budget of$27.3 million is broken down between the plants as follows:
·     Northside $8.7 mil – Anaerobic Digester Rehabilitation ( two of the four digesters are out of service), Headworks (screening and grit removal);
·     Southside $6.0 mil – Aeration System Upgrades and Odor Control at the plant and in River Park (FY 09 $2.0 mil with a total of $9.5 mil through 2013 to improve the odors around the Southside Plant, River Parks and around the 71st Street Sludge Processing  Facility);
·     Haikey Creek $1.7 – Sludge Thickening Improvements;
·     Lower Bird Creek $1.9 – Sludge Handling and Disinfection improvements;
·     Areawide $9.0 mil – Collection System Rehabilitation and other collection system improvements.
Tulsa Flooding 1984
Stormwater drainage across the city includes 439 miles of open channels 29 miles of improved channels, 988 miles of roadside ditches and 100 detention ponds. Removal of debris in those channels is critical to flood prevention. Those channels include privately owned sections that must be monitored and cleaned to prevent blockages from affecting public sections upstream of downstream . $24 million from the 2006 sales tax was allocated to $4 million for system rehab, $1 million to address street and backyard flooding issues and $19 million for major channel reconstruction and repairs. Currently there is more than a $10 million dollar backlog of small drainage projects needed to alleviate run-off type/residential flooding.

The goal is to fund $2 million in projects on an annual basis for five years. Currently, the city has identified expenses of $168,000 per year to address debris blockage on public and private creeks. $500,000 has also been requested from the stormwater fund to mow uncurbed arterial rights of way and apply herbicide.

Edit Note:  Tulsa Today publisher David Arnett has written in detail on problems with Tulsa’s Southside Waste Treatment Plant related to Arkansas River Development.  Many Tulsans believe that plant should be closed or replaced rather than repaired because the facility is too old to successfully repair and because of its location on the River beside the I-44 entrance to the City of Tulsa.  Click here to read “River-Pooping Gorilla” published February 12, 2007.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 07 May 2008 )