City of Norman plans to improve water quality of Lake Thunderbird

Erick Payne | Senior Producer

Joey Stipek | Assignment Editor

Joe Sparks, the owner of Legend’s Restaurant, doesn’t find the taste of Norman’s water objectionable, but he knows other city residents who find the taste to be unpleasant. To counter the taste of the water, Sparks said the restaurant uses a filtering system for drinking water, coffee and water mixed with syrup for their soda machine.

“Using filters is partly to filter out the chlorine flavor, but in our case, it filters out the Lake Thunderbird taste, too, if that is present depending on what time of the year it is,” Sparks said.

Norman’s water supply comes from Lake Thunderbird blended with water from a number of wells. However, the water in Lake Thunderbird currently does not meet the water quality standards established by the state of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, according to Joe Willingham, the stormwater engineer for the City of Norman.

“It’s still safe to use, but we are approaching a point where it would be extremely difficult to clean it up, and it wouldn’t be safe to use,” he said.

The City of Norman officials are working with Moore and Oklahoma City to clean up the water in Lake Thunderbird. The City of Norman’s plan for improving the quality of water residents drink is through reductions in the maximum amount of pollutants allowed into a body of water through their Total Maximum Daily Load compliance and monitoring plan. Willingham said the plan would cost the city $1.45 million for the first five years:

  • $250,000 to reduce the pollutants in Lake Thunderbird for fiscal year 2016
  • $300,000 for further costs set aside for each following fiscal year
  • $40-$50,000 annually after gauging stations and samplers are purchased for the monitoring plan.

If everything goes according to models and planning, Willingham said there would be a noticeable change in the quality of the water through the cleanup process within 15 years.

The primary focus of the Total Maximum Daily Load compliance and monitoring plan is aimed at reducing the pollutants found in creeks and streams that flow into the lake.

“We will do that through a variety of ways — from soft to installed physical or hard elements, stream restoration, detention basins, wetland floor base and so on and so forth,” Willingham said.

The plan originated from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality when both organizations recognized certain pollutants add to other factors causing Lake Thunderbird not to meet water quality standards for Chlorophyll A, dissolved oxygen and turbidity, Willingham said.

Concerning pollution getting into the water, he said stormwater, stream degradation from urbanization and dirt from construction sites seeping into Lake Thunderbird are the main factors for the diminished water quality.

“It’s interesting when you think about clear water running off of concrete. That clear water is running off of concrete, but usually it’s going so fast, and it doesn’t have anything it’s carrying,” Willingham said. “It’s not carrying any sediment when it comes off of the concrete. It’s moving very fast, so it has a high amount of energy.”

According to Willingham, this example is what is causing the impact to the creeks and streams.

“It’s tearing up the bottom, and it’s tearing up the sides. It carries this sediment down to the lake,” he said.

Another part leading to the deepening and widening of the streams is if a farmer or rancher straightens out a portion of his stream on his land.

“He can introduce that instability and cause it as well,” Willingham said.

When it comes to actual polluters, he said the only people who can be penalized currently are construction site operators. The City of Norman Public Works Department has cited four construction companies this year alone. The notices of violation were among the first issued since 2010. Since then, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has given one expedited consent order, which was in 2013:

  • Casey Scott of Moore, Oklahoma. Inspectors found Scott didn’t have a permit for “construction related earth disturbing activity of one acre or more,” according to the notice of violation from the City of Norman Public Works Department.
  • John McHughes of Norman, Oklahoma. Inspectors found erosion control practices were not installed on his site in accordance with his permit application with the City of Norman, according to the notice of violation from the City of Norman Public Works Department.
  • Isaac Christian of Norman, Oklahoma. Inspectors found Best Management Practices for erosion control were absent or not maintained, according to the notice of violation from the City of Norman Public Works Department.
  • Evan Nixon of Norman, Oklahoma. Inspectors found Best Management Practices for erosion control were absent or not maintained, according to the notice of violation from the City of Norman Public Works Department.
  • A respondent located at Indian Hills Road and Telephone Road in Norman, Oklahoma. Inspectors found the “respondent has failed to comply with the terms of the permit as it relates to Best Management Practices installation, maintenance and inspection. The development and/or construction site has not been maintained to prevent the discharge of stormwater runoff,” according to Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s expedited consent order.

The city inspects every property that is under construction. Inspectors conduct inspections twice a month and occasionally every other month depending on which construction sites need attention.

“If a site is in pretty good condition one month, it might not warrant an inspection again that month. So, we may inspect other properties that need more attention and more follow-up,” Willingham said.

If an investigation finds noncompliance or violations, inspectors will issue a verbal warning. Inspectors will then follow up with a written inspection report, Willingham said. Those receiving notices of violation will have seven to 14 days to correct any violation depending on the severity of the issue.

“If it’s a violation on paper, they may have longer to fix it. If it’s a violation that could cause pollutants to go down creeks and streams, then they will have a shorter period to fix it,” Willingham said.

The city can only levy fines between $50 and $750. The city rarely fines for noncompliance or violations.

“It’s just a difficult process to accomplish. You have to go through the legal system, and then if they fight at all, it has to go to court, and it’s difficult. So, we tend to try to get compliance through other means,” Willingham said.

Other ways of compliance with construction companies include withholding inspections, which Willingham said stops the progress of the work on the job site.

“A stop work order, a cease or withholding inspections is good leverage. We got to be careful how we use them because of possible ramifications there,” he said.

But even if Norman successfully reduces dirt and stormwater flowing into the lake, nothing will change unless Oklahoma City and Moore also impose the same water quality standards and address the issues through their compliance and monitoring plan.

“The plans are going to be different, but because there are three different entities. We are not going to have the same plans. But they do have to address the same issues the City of Norman does, and it’s DEQ’s job that all these plans mesh and work together,” Willingham said.

Ultimately, city officials want to improve the water quality in Lake Thunderbird before the water gets worse, according to Willingham.

“We can do that at this point. It’s going to take some effort and some will to do so. I think that we’ve got the will in our cities, he said. “We got the effort. It can be applied, and we just need to prepare to do so.”

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