The Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust (OCWUT) is Oklahoma’s largest provider of drinking water, treating and delivering an average of 100 million gallons a day (MGD) of water to more than 1.4 million residents through retail and wholesale service connections. The trust also provides wastewater and trash collection services to residential, commercial, and industrial customers across central Oklahoma. In this interview, Oklahoma City Utilities Director Chris Browning tells us more about the OCWUT and its mission.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Chris Browning: More than 40 years ago, I started as a laborer at a wastewater treatment plant. As I observed the multifaceted nature of the sector, it didn’t take long to figure out that there were many career opportunities throughout the industry, so I began advancing through the ranks, working in every business unit that exists in a water utility, mostly in the Atlanta metro area. In 2014, I moved to Texas to take a job as a public works director. In 2016, I moved to Oklahoma City to become the utilities director for Oklahoma City and the general manager of the OCWUT.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the history of the OCWUT.
Chris Browning: Oklahoma City is situated right at the center of the United States. We get about 35 inches of rain per year. Oklahoma City developed as a city in about a day as a result of the 1889 Land Run. It went from just a few people to being a city of 10,000 in a very short period of time. Therefore, water became critical. The Oklahoma River, also known as the North Canadian River, runs right through town. However, it dries up in the summertime. Originally, the folks who moved here depended on purchasing water by the bucket from the stationmaster at the Santa Fe depot. Because that was not sustainable, plans were launched to put in 19 wells along the river with the capacity to draw 1 MGD. But when the river dried up in the summer, so did the wells. Thus, in 1917, the city decided to build a surface water treatment plant and a large lake that would act as a water reservoir. The project had a price tag of a million dollars, which was pretty substantial, but it was a good investment, and the system and Lake Overholser are still operational today. However, as the population continued to grow, it became clear that Lake Overholser alone could not keep up with the escalating demand of the growing city, and in 1950, the city built Lake Hefner to serve as an additional water collection reservoir.
Despite these efforts, the maximum capacity of the North Canadian River and recurring droughts still limited growth in central Oklahoma. To overcome that, in the 1960s, city leaders decided they needed to look beyond our immediate region for additional sources of water. They eventually settled on an area in southeastern Oklahoma that averages 50 inches of rainfall per year. We built a plant and Lake Stanley Draper in southeastern Oklahoma City and another lake in Atoka, Oklahoma. We pump the water from Atoka 100 miles through a 60‑inch pipeline to Lake Stanley Draper.
Continued growth eventually led the city to purchase water storage and water rights in a number of federal reservoirs as well. Our footprint is large. We bought the storage rights and water rights from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers–owned Canton Lake to provide water from the west. We also bought the storage and water rights tied to two more lakes in McGee Creek and Sardis in southeastern Oklahoma. The result is that today, the OCWUT relies on a water supply system that stretches 250 miles across
the state: 75 miles to the northwest and 130 miles to the southeast. That broad footprint makes our water supply reliable, since it’s highly unlikely that the entire state would be in a drought situation at the same time. Through these combined resources, we have access to enough water to provide all of central Oklahoma with water through 2060.
Today, we provide water to 1.4 million people in central Oklahoma. Oklahoma City accounts for about 700,000 of those people. We also provide water to a number of other cities in the region as a wholesaler. Oklahoma City is unusually large in a geographic sense. At 621 square miles, it is one of the largest cities by area in the United States.
Municipal Water Leader: Why is your agency called a trust, and what is its relation to the municipality of Oklahoma City?
Chris Browning: In Oklahoma, a number of entities that are revenue based rather than tax based are set up as trusts. The OCWUT manages the operation of the city’s water, wastewater, and trash collection services. The trust is made up of the mayor, the city manager, a council member, and two independent members.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about your infrastructure and services?
Chris Browning: We have about 7,000 miles of water and sewer pipeline. We have two large water treatment plants capable of treating up to 250 MGD and four wastewater plants that can treat about 110 MGD. We are committed to providing water, wastewater, and trash collection services throughout central Oklahoma to safeguard public health and the environment, to support public safety, and to enable economic development. In total, we have 10 divisions: administration, customer service, engineering, line maintenance, water quality, wastewater quality, solid waste management, fleet services, southeastern Oklahoma water supply, and Tinker Airforce Base operations and maintenance.
Municipal Water Leader: How many employees do you have, and where are they situated?
Chris Browning: We have about 800 employees and two large service contracts. The first is a contract to provide operations, maintenance, and repair services at all our wastewater plants. Second, we have a trash collection service that serves about two-thirds of the city. When you add all this, our combined workforce is about 1,100 employees. A small group of our core direct employees are located in Atoka, 100 miles to the southeast; they manage the pumping of water to Oklahoma City. Everyone else is based at our headquarters and local facilities.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about the services you provide to Tinker Air Force Base?
Chris Browning: We were recently awarded a 50‑year contract, worth about $600 million, to operate the water and sewer system on Tinker Air Force Base. We are responsible for operating, maintaining, repairing, and rebuilding the entire water system on the base. The base actually sold us the existing system when we got the operational contract in late 2020. We effectively took over the operation of the system on November 1, 2021. It’s a large base with about 35,000 people living and working there, so the water system is fairly large.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about why your agency recently received the Platinum Award for Utility Excellence from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA)?
Chris Browning: The AMWA is an association made up of the largest publicly owned water utilities in the United States—those serving populations of at least 100,000. The award process is not a competition but is rather a comprehensive peer review. It’s a method of recognizing utility management excellence by industry peers. The categories that are evaluated include fiscal responsibility, service reliability, regulatory compliance, sustainability, workforce management, and customer service. The peer reviewers look at all the major elements that are part of water utility operations. They review how well the utility is doing from the perspective of the utility itself and from the perspectives of customers, officials with oversight responsibilities, and the reviewers themselves. One initiative our utility undertakes that I like to point out to people is the citizen survey we conduct each year through an independent company. Through the years, we have consistently ranked about 10 percent above the national average in all categories. We push hard for quality of service. With this in mind, we put together an application for review by this peer panel of AMWA members, and ultimately, we were fortunate enough to be awarded the Platinum Award for Utility Excellence.
Municipal Water Leader: How is your agency upgrading its infrastructure while encouraging a reduction in water consumption, all while maintaining affordable rates?
Chris Browning: People may think of the OCWUT as a department of government, but we’re not. We’re a large business, and thus we have to respond and act accordingly. Our annual budget is over $700 million. Our capital program for the next 10 years is $3.3 billion. A number of years ago, we developed core business initiatives to focus on water supply, system reliability and resiliency, regulatory compliance, safety, and financial management. With regard to financial management, we are rated AAA by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. There are only a handful of large utilities in the United States that are AAA rated, and we pride ourselves on our financial management. That goes to the heart of affordability.
Today, resiliency and reliability are at the forefront of our concerns, particularly when considered in conjunction with what are referred to as climate shock events. Climate change is a long-term, generational issue, but climate shock is what we are dealing with in the here and now. We’re having more frequent and more intense storms across the United States. Hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, and droughts are all becoming more frequent and more intense. Here in Oklahoma, we are affected by them all. Last year, we had an ice storm that knocked 125,000 tons of trees and tree limbs to the ground; collecting them cost $15 million. Exacerbating the issue was the fact that shortly before the storm, there had been a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, so many local resources were tied up down there. Shortly thereafter, we experienced a winter storm of record that sent temperatures below freezing for a couple of weeks and included lows of 15 degrees below zero. The last time our area had had temperatures that low was over 100 years earlier. We have to anticipate and deal with those kinds of extreme, unpredictable storm events.
To maintain our AAA rating, we need to build a reliable and resilient water system, because along with financial management potential, that’s what the bonding agencies are looking at today. I mentioned earlier that we have a water footprint spanning 250 miles. We are effectively building a resilient system that is responsive to such weather events. We’re deploying generators and now have them at nearly all our treatment facilities. We’re constantly upgrading our aging infrastructure to minimize the likelihood of failure. Currently, we’re building a large redundant pipeline so that if one plant becomes inoperable, the other plant can serve the entire city. Similarly, we’re in the process of building a second pipeline from Atoka to Oklahoma City so that we can bring our entire water allocation from southeastern Oklahoma to the central Oklahoma and Oklahoma City region. That project alone has an $800 million cost. We are also currently working to automate our meter reading capabilities through
new technology. In addition, we have launched a water conservation program partnership with the Oklahoma State University Extension Services to focus on public outreach and education on efficient water use. Along with this, in 2013 we adopted permanent progressive water conservation measures to manage system-wide demand and ensure water availability through periods of drought, and in 2014, we implemented conservation-oriented inclining-block water rates to provide conservation pricing signals.
Municipal Water Leader: What are your current regulatory challenges?
Chris Browning: We work closely with our regulators here and communicate with them constantly. It is a team effort. We need to know what they’re thinking, and they need to know what steps we are taking to manage our highly regulated industry. We let them know about our challenges so that they are aware that we are working on them and can help guide us as we respond to them. One current example is lead service lines. Fortunately, we don’t have a lot of lead service lines, but we are engaged in a comprehensive study to find and eliminate those we do have. As our system has grown and evolved, we have replaced a lot of the older pipelines, which included replacing most of older lead service lines. We have dedicated a team to evaluate this and responding accordingly.
A more recent concern is the evolving focus on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, including perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. It’s still not clear what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will ultimately do, but we’ve already been testing down to parts per trillion and have found no traces in our systems so far.
Chris Browning is utilities director for Oklahoma City and the general manager of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust. He can be reached by e-mailing the Oklahoma City Utilities Department public information officer at email@example.com.