AMBER, Okla. – In a metal building west of the small Oklahoma town of Amber, Paul Jones is gathering his staff around a wall filled with color-coded pipe maps and a whiteboard scrawled with the day’s priorities. The Rural Water District has undergone tremendous changes, fueled by a combination of hard work and USDA loan Financing.
“When I got here seven years ago, the infrastructure was in bad shape,” explained Jones, manager of Grady County Rural Water District #6. “The utility hadn’t received that level of maintenance it required.”
Grady #6 was also a purchasing utility, buying their water from the nearby City of Chickasha. The arrangement had created two problems. First, Chickasha was at a lower elevation, so Grady #6 was having to pump all its water uphill, and second, the small utility was responsible for water quality that was out of their control.
“We had no control over what Chickasha did to their water, but we still had to sample and we could still be fined if they were out of compliance,” said Sharron Garrett, the utility office manager. “Your destiny is in someone else’s hands.”
The small system needed to adapt, to change, but it was facing many of the problems common to rural utilities. With a staff of six and 1,464 connections, Grady #6 had to maintain over 700 miles of pipe over 600 square miles of territory. The system supplies water to four different school districts and covers most of northern Grady County. The demands on the system showed no signs of slowing, either, with the population growing 9% over the past 15 years.
Grady #6 need to make improvements, but those improvements required money.
“It’s very difficult for a rural system to raise the capital to make big changes,” said Garrett, who started working at Grady #6 with her husband when the utility was started in 1975 and had 365 connections.
“Our rate payers simply can’t afford commercial or private financing at the prevailing rates and terms,” Jones said.
The utility started by making smaller changes, like making water loss a primary focus.
“When I started, water loss was around 45%,” Jones said. “Right now we average 25% water loss, but when we get to 10%, that’s when we’ve really worked on water loss.”
The utility replaced it’s neglected valves and installing line meters that measured flow through certain zones of the system.
“We can isolate different parts of the distribution system and see how much water is going into that area at different times,” Jones said, pointing to the color-coded utility map on the wall. “When you see a lot of water going into an area at 1 a.m. when everyone is asleep, then you know you have a problem. Once we identify a problem in a certain area, we go in to locate and repair any leaks.”
The approach has been so successful that it has even drawn attention from the US EPA. The Oklahoma Rural Water Association arranged for Dr. Peter Grevatt, director, and Becki Clark, deputy director, from the EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water to tour Grady #6.
“Grady Rural Water #6 was able to successfully overcome their challenges by implementing innovative yet practical, cost effective solutions to help the system deliver high quality water that will improve the health, economy and security of their community,” Dr. Grevatt said after touring the facility.
Jones appreciates the attention his team has received from their approach to water loss, and he sees it as a greater concern in the future.
“Finding good water is hard,” he said. “With the rules and regulations regarding potable water growing tighter all the time, keeping what you’ve produced is very important.”
The office whiteboard with the day’s tasks and priorities still has “Water Loss” written across the top. It is part of an effort to maintain the progress the utility has gained. Grady #6 has started the process of identifying pipe that needs to be up-sized or replaced. The system now also has a regular maintenance schedule that includes everything from exercising valves to mowing around lines and wells.
“We’re trying to get full life out of the equipment,” Jones said. “It all works together: we can prevent damage to our lines and if you have to repair a leak at 2 a.m. it helps if you’re not in head-high Bermuda grass.”
Funding from the USDA Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program helped Grady #6 get the funding to starting making bigger investments in the utility. A $12.8 million loan provided the capital to install 75 miles of water lines, drill two water wells and erect three water towers.
One of those towers is an impressive 110-foot-tall, 1.4 million gallon water tower near the town of Minco. The fresh white tower was completed in August of 2013 and stands near a field of tall, slow-spinning wind turbines. The tower is one of eight that store water pumped from the utility’s new two new wells. The news wells and tower are part of the effort to transition Grady #6 from purchasing water to producing its own.
With the water contracts with Chickasha expiring in 2021, in addition to problems with pumping and quality, the Grady #6 board began exploring other water sources. The utility found a plentiful supply northwest corner of their system, near the small town of Cogar. The utility brought two wells on-line, with a third under development.
The change has created several advantages for Grady #6, including moving from a rates structure that purchased system water at $3 per 1,000 gallons to producing ground water for $.35 per 1,000 gallons.
“Since we changed water sources, customers have been very happy with the taste,” said James Calhoun, a systems operations specialist. “I bottle it and take it home.”
Because of the elevation difference, the utility no longer has to pump water up-hill.
“Cogar is a slightly higher elevation, so most of the system is gravity fed now,” Jones said. “We went from needing eight pumps to needing one.”
The elevation also gives the utility some resistance against natural disasters.
“We have generators at the wells, so we can maintain service, even if an ice storm knocks out all the power,” Jones explained. “Unless a tornado directly hits the towers, we’re pretty much covered.”
One change at Grady #6, a change Jones considers critical to continued success, has nothing to do with new equipment or infrastructure. That change is improved pay and time-off for his employees.
“People in the water industry don’t get enough praise,” he said. “They’ll fix a water leak in the middle of the night, and that doesn’t get noticed.”
“Just last week we had a leak where we started at 11:45 and we didn’t go home until 12:30 the next day,” Calhoun said.
“That was a fun day,” joked Morgan Britton and Matt Sierra, two members of the utility crew.
Jones hopes to keep improving the pay and benefits for his staff in the future, since he considers them as integral to the utility’s success as their new water source or focus on water loss.
“These guys are the driving force behind everything. They’re the ones out in the field with their boots on,” he said.