Oklahoma City Touts Benefits of Water Partnerships

​Public-Private Partnerships a Worthwhile Option to Managing City Services

By Guy Liebmann 
Former Vice Mayor of Oklahoma City

In Oklahoma City, home to more than one million people and plenty of oil wells, we have found a way to alleviate some of our budgetary concerns through wastewater — yes, wastewater, not oil as some might think. Through a public-private partnership for the operations and maintenance of our wastewater services, Oklahoma City has been able to save more than $150 million over the past 18 years.

Such savings come at a particularly good time. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it will cost taxpayers more than $500 billion over the next 20 years to overhaul the nation's water and wastewater infrastructure. U.S. cities are faced with the need to spend millions of dollars to rehabilitate, repair, expand and operate water and wastewater infrastructure systems. In addition, many cities are faced with not only providing excellent water quality, but also finding adequate water sources, which increases the ultimate cost of water.

As municipalities consider options for improving local water infrastructures, maintaining strict compliance with environmental regulations and meeting increased demands for water resources — all while trying to keep rates down — many officials are turning towards public-private partnerships. The concept of public-private partnerships for water services has certainly worked for Oklahoma City.

Consider the benefits of working with the private sector. Our partnership with a company called USFilter (now Veolia Water North America) started modestly with a small operations contract for a portion of one of the city's wastewater plants. Over the past two decades, we've renewed our partnership repeatedly, adding responsibility for the private sector partner while the savings and benefits to Oklahoma City residents piled on.

Typically, the private sector will bring in decades of technical knowledge managing water and wastewater plants to make progressive changes that city staffs don't always have the resources or expertise to implement. For example, in Oklahoma City, our $150 million in savings was generated from changes to administrative functions, improvements to the odor control program, modifications and installation of new equipment, and the stabilization of biosolids. And we expect our savings, along with continuing high levels of service, to grow.

Additionally, while wastewater has been the focus of our partnership, we've been able to create and sustain progressive programs for biosolids disposal, industrial pretreatment and water reuse. In fact, our water reuse program serves a golf course community that was home to the PGA Senior Tour last year. Thanks to the private sector, Oklahoma City has immediate access to technology and know-how that enables the city to use today's technologies to effectively manage our wastewater services and basically create a new water source for irrigation, industrial processes and many other uses.

It is also important to note that Oklahoma City residents have enjoyed stable utility rates and upgraded services while the city has logged an excellent environmental compliance record.

In the United States, public-private partnerships for water services have been a solution for municipalities for more than 30 years. Rate stability, core competency and customer satisfaction have been key deciding factors for city leaders. Municipalities will see their costs drop by 10 to 40 percent through a partnership while they gain technical expertise and most often a highly active corporate citizen and community partner. The savings can mean more money to reinvest in other city resources, and the new community partner often means that important educational initiatives and community programs continue to grow.

In Oklahoma City, ratepayers have reaped all these benefits while the city remains in full control of all assets and rates. Given our experience, I think it is important for all mayors to consider a public-private partnership as a way to not only address, but fully meet, needed city services.
Many city leaders will consider this a new solution to managing water services, but in Oklahoma City, it is old and proven, and my colleagues would be well served to consider it.