Tahlequah Daily Press

March 14, 2014

TPWA ‘trust,’ predecessors offer local service

First in a series on local utility services, how they were set up, and how they work

By SEAN ROWLEY
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — For decades, Tahlequah has provided most of its city and utility services through the Tahlequah Public Works Authority.

However, TPWA hasn’t always existed. There were previous incarnations, and sometimes, a service was provided by private interests.

The Tahlequah City Light and Water Department was created in July 1943 and its first offices were in the Thompson Hotel. It operated under a five-member board and had 10 employees by October 1944. There were 12 employees by 1951.

The TPWA was formed in 1971 by action of the Oklahoma Legislature, creating a trust not subject to Oklahoma Corporation Commission oversight. Today it operates under a five-member board, which is appointed by the mayor with approval of the city council. Appointments last five years, after which a member may be reappointed for a second five-year term.

“We are allowed a lot of latitude, but technically, the mayor and city council are our bosses,” said Kelly Ross, chair of the TPWA Board of Trustees. “They don’t really dictate to us, but we really are an arm of the city government. One thing that has always helped us is that the mayors and the general managers of the TPWA have had good working relationships.”

The TPWA plans, funds and administers electric, water and sewer services for the city. However, natural gas delivery is provided through the Northeast Oklahoma Public Facilities Authority (NOPFA).

“We read, bill and collect for NOPFA,” said Mike Doublehead, general manager for the TPWA. “We have always had a good relationship with them, and I think it is a great convenience for the customers to pay all their utilities on one bill at one location.”

City electric service was funded through a 1919 bond issuance approved by voters for $140,000. For decades, the Tahlequah Light Plant produced electricity with diesel-powered generators.

The city first started buying power from the Grand River Dam Authority in May 1947. The GRDA allowed the city to sell at a much cheaper rate than provided in the Tahlequah City Charter of 1942.

Homes used less electricity in the 1940s than today, but the average monthly consumption for a residence in 2012 was 903 kilowatt hours. Under the 1942 charter, that would cost the residential customer $22.56. The GRDA charged Tahlequah $5.42 per 903 kwh in 1947, drastically reducing overhead. In July 1947, the city’s payment to the GRDA for a month of electricity was $1,194.40.

Today, the GRDA generates electricity with hydroelectric dams and the coal-fired Grand River Energy Center near Chouteau.

Rates for Tahlequah are set by the TPWA board. Doublehead said electric rates are not very volatile because the power is all generated in Oklahoma.

“If there is any impact to electric rates in the future, I anticipate it could be due to the conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas,” Doublehead said. “Hydroelectric generation is the cheapest source of electricity, but coal is the second-cheapest. The Environmental Protection Agency is tightening its standards in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In January, the GRDA approved conversion of the Chouteau complex to natural gas.

Water service in Tahlequah was originally delivered through a private corporation. It obtained a franchise at the dawn of the 20th Century, and the system was operating by 1902. The initial water source was the five springs near Seminary Hall, with the subsequent addition of Duncan Springs in the city park and McIntosh Springs west of campus.

A reservoir and pump station were built in south Tahlequah, and a storage reservoir was constructed west of town.

The water utility venture consistently lost money, and in 1909, the works were sold to the city after voters approved the transaction and a $53,000 bond issue.

A crisis arose in 1916 with an outbreak of typhoid fever traced to the city’s water sources. State health officials determined that sewage from north Tahlequah was finding its way into the springs. Consequently, the city received approval from the voters for a $30,000 bond issue to make the Illinois River the new water source.

The Illinois River remains the city’s primary water source. Enhancements were made through the decades. Capacity was increased in the 1940s, a new water clarifier was built in 1962, a new rail to the river was finished in 1972, and the plant was remodeled in 1978.

The Illinois River plant has a capacity of seven million gallons a day. A second plant in Park Hill can provide 1.5 million gallons per day from Lake Tenkiller.

Tahlequah’s first sewage plant was a Depression-era WPA project, replaced in 1972 by a new plant on the site of today’s wastewater treatment facility.

The modern facility, online since 1992, is designed to protect the Illinois River. Funds from the TPWA and local bank loans, approved by Tahlequah voters, covered $5 million of the cost of construction. The remainder of $4 million was paid by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The treatment plant includes a reserve peak flow storage basin, and wastewater is treated with cascade aeration and ultraviolet disinfection. Nitrogen and phosphorus are removed, and the water oxygenation surpasses required levels.

WHAT’S NEXT

Read the Sunday edition of Tahlequah Daily Press for a history of NOPFA, and visit www.tahlequahdailypress.com to see an online exclusive listing the members of the TPWA board.

srowley@tahlequahdailypress.com