ENID, Okla. — Ahead of Tuesday’s city election, one topic has taken prominence among the three mayoral candidates — the Kaw Lake water pipeline project.
Candidate Milton Mitchell, who returned to Enid about two years ago, is in favor of canning the Kaw Lake project. The other candidates, Ward 6 Commissioner George Pankonin and Ward 5 Commissioner Tammy Wilson, are staunchly committed to continuing the project, which currently is in its third phase of four with millions already spent.
The Enid News & Eagle recently spoke with the three candidates again on their opinions about Kaw Lake, along with taking a dive into the project, looking at previous studies and investigating the feasibility of ending what’s been called the largest project in the history of Enid.
As a main campaign platform, Mitchell is running on ending the Kaw Lake project at whatever cost, and then building a lake and dam near Enid, which he said would also provide revenue through tourism and recreation.
“I keep calling it a blue herring, that means your money’s flying away. That’s your money, too. It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s all of us ... we’re the ones that’s footing the bill for that and it’s going to cost us,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said following cancellation of the Kaw Lake project, he would take the sales tax used for the project back to the public for a vote on the continuance of the tax to instead build a lake and fix Enid’s roads.
Wilson, who’s been a part of Enid City Commission since 2011, said the city had been looking extensively at water options as early as 2014. She said a lake was an option everybody would have liked to have, but it wasn’t the most feasible course of action after studying that option in depth. Along with looking at lake options, she said wells and pipelines to existing water sources were some of the other options explored.
“A lake is such a gamble and that was why everybody was so nervous about it because if you look at the cost of it, it’s not that far off from the cost of a pipeline,” Wilson said. “And it’s a 50/50 shot where the pipeline is 100 percent guaranteed, we’re going to have water … we couldn’t gamble with the people’s money like that. I mean that’s a lot of money to gamble with.”
Pankonin said he believes the pipeline is an important project for Enid’s future and while there isn’t a critical water shortage right now, it’s an issue that will come up in the future if not addressed. He said the water table is dropping from the wells the city uses and shared similar sentiments to Wilson’s, that while a lake would be an option everyone would love with recreation and more, it’s not the feasible option.
While Pankonin wasn’t part of Enid City Commission during the forefront of Kaw Lake pipeline discussions, he said he trusts in the decisions made by Enid City Commission before him after all of the studies and meetings.
“I think the decision that was made previously by the board was a valid and sound decision, and I think that’s the way we need to go,” Pankonin said
Current project status
To date, the city’s spent just short of $16.5 million on the Kaw Lake project, and so far encumbered a bit under $12.1 million, according to City Manager Jerald Gilbert. He said the numbers are tracking where they were expected to be at the existing 30 percent phase.
Recently, Enid City Commission authorized a $57.7 million loan with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which is expected to help fund the project’s third phase, which now is underway.
Concept development was a main component of the first phase while preliminary engineering, including the preliminary design up to 30 percent complete, was the major effort of the second phase, Garver Engineering Vice President Michael Graves previously told Enid City Commission. The back end of the second phase involved developing a phasing plan.
The Kaw Lake water pipeline is a project that’s been in the works for the better part of 14 …
For the third phase, Graves has said the 30 percent design will be taken all the way to 100 percent, or bid-ready documents. He said the phase also involves the land acquisition process, continuation of environmental permitting and production of bid documents. Phase three began in October 2018, with an expected finish date of December 2020.
The fourth and final phase is anticipated to overlap with phase three and begin in January 2020 with the bidding step followed by a move into construction. Plans are to have the project finished by late 2022 to early 2023.
No plans to change course
No backtracking on the project is contemplated by the city of Enid. More than 68 percent voted in favor of the project, which had an estimated cost of around $360 million at the time of the election. The city announced this week the project is expected to cost $315 million.
“The election was proposed after extensive study of all the options for securing sufficient water for the Enid and the surrounding area for the next 50 years. Quite a bit of financing is already in place, and the project is proceeding to be completed by early 2023,” City Attorney Carol Lahman said.
Lahman said the city project currently is contracted with Garver Engineering; the Public Finance Law Group Inc., which is the city’s bond counsel; Municipal Finance Services Inc., the city’s financial advisor; and Anglin PR.
To stop the project, Lahman said it would take a majority of Enid City Commission.
“It could be curtailed by the City Commission but after a vote of the people showing significant support, I am of the opinion that it would require some significant change in the basic assumptions about the water needs based upon expert opinion bolstered by a change in circumstances,” Lahman said.
As for the current sales tax helping to fund the pipeline, Lahman said absent another election asking the public to approve a different use of the tax, it can only be used for the Kaw Lake project.
This week, the city of Enid issued a number of releases in support of the project, explained the need for the Kaw Lake project and why the pipeline was the best option. They can be read on the city’s Facebook Page.
Debating the project
The trio of candidates have taken part in numerous forums and debates leading up to the election, and what was discussed at those events are the same sentiments shared with the Enid News & Eagle earlier this week.
Wilson said the pipeline project is roughly a seven-year endeavor, whereas a lake would take upwards of 20 years and is a long, strung-out process. She said earlier in the week at a debate the city is aiming and estimating for $315 million for the pipeline project, and a lake was estimated to be somewhat close to $300 million.
It’s a point Mitchell’s tried to disprove. He said he recently spoke with the state’s Farm Service Agency, and claimed a lake and dam near Lahoma could be built at a cost of $40 million. He also said that area creeks could be used to fill such a lake.
Mitchell often references two Guernsey reports done on potential water supply projects for Enid, one report published in 2009 titled “Water System Master Plan” and a follow-up in 2014 labeled as the final executive summary.
Mitchell has said that in the original report, the Kaw Lake pipeline option was declared the most uneconomic option out of the four alternative water supply sources presented. Other options in the report included constructing a lake near Hennessey, Lahoma or Sheridan, or a new “wellfield” option.
While the report itself does state the Kaw Lake option “appears to be the most uneconomic” choice, by being the most expensive of the four, it also states that if a regional water supply were developed and the city treated and sold water to other municipalities, it would become a more attractive option.
The report also stated an advantage of Kaw Lake is that it already exists, and that constructing lakes near Hennessey or Lahoma would require more detailed studies and negotiations with a number of entities. The Lahoma Lake option was reported “to just meet the projected 2050 water demand” and if growth predictions were correct, additional “water resources (perhaps additional wells) would be required beyond 2050.”
In the 2009 study, construction costs were estimated at $189 million for Lahoma Lake and $221 million for Hennessey Lake.
The 2014 study was a development of the 2009 study, according to the report. The 2014 report explored the development of water supply reservoirs near Hennessey, Sheridan or Lahoma; the Kaw Lake water pipeline; and potential groundwater expansion.
“During the early stages of the (2009) study Kaw Lake was not considered because of more interest in developing a reservoir completely dedicated to Enid, but as the study progressed, it became apparent that Kaw Lake required increased consideration,” the report states. “As a result, the information from master plan was updated for this study.”
For the 2014 report’s project summary, it was stated that a potential Lahoma reservoir would have a lower cost basis but would continue the city’s long-term reliance on groundwater as the lake would not provide enough yield to act as a sole source.
“Any new reservoir will require an extended period of time prior to having enough water in the reservoir to begin supplying water,” the report stated. “This study used a 14-year period from the time design begins on a reservoir until the reservoir is full enough to begin pumping and treating water.”
Despite whatever option was pursued, the report recommended to increase the number of wells currently used to alleviate the continued drop in groundwater levels. The 2014 report stated the existing groundwater supply system is not sustainable in the long term.
Mitchell claimed there was a “tremendous disparity” between the two reports and the lake and wellfield options weren’t seriously considered. He’s also brought up concerns of silting in at Kaw Lake and the high amount of pressure a 70-mile pipeline going uphill would have, along with the pipeline’s maintenance.
“I don’t blame anyone. I think somehow people were introduced to something that didn’t fully divulge their options, and I think the citizens of Enid deserve better than that,” Mitchell said.
Wilson said the depth of groundwater is increasing and aquifers aren’t recharging that quickly. She also said siltation isn’t an issue, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must handle that situation if it arises.
In addition, Wilson said the area’s evaporation rate is twice as much as its precipitation rate, and a man-made lake isn’t sustainable in the area. Wilson also argued building a lake would disrupt more lives than building a pipe underground; a lake would attract more birds and wildlife, impacting Vance Air Force Base; guaranteed water from Kaw Lake would attract more industry and manufacturing; and that Oklahoma City has been pumping water uphill over 100 miles for years with no significant problems.
“It’s been going on at least 10 years, and I’ve been involved in it for eight years. Honestly, there is no decision we make that’s done lightly. Every single thing that affects the city we talk about and we discuss it and sometimes we argue about it and we all give our thoughts on it,” Wilson said. “This is a big, big, big project. This is the biggest project in Enid’s history, and I’m insulted people would think that we didn’t take the time to think about it properly.”
Pankonin said he doesn’t think there’s any reliable source of water to replenish a potential constructed lake, and that it would end up as a hole in the ground. He said “there is no way” enough water would come from area creeks to fill a lake to the level needed to pump out water.
Other arguments brought up by Pankonin include the impact a nearby lake would have on Vance; that the citizens of Enid voted and the city needs to provide what was voted for; and in the future, Enid could be able to sell its water to help offset the project cost. He said the water provided through Kaw Lake would be attractive to industry interested in coming to the area, along with making water available long-term for Vance.
“The fact of the matter is water is like gold. It does not get cheaper with time, it gets more expensive with time. And as it becomes more rare and the demand becomes higher for the limited resource, it’s going to get higher and higher and higher, Pankonin said. “I think today is the day that we need to take care of that.”
City of Enid’s election for city mayor and Ward 5 commission seats is Tuesday.