The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 31, 2009

Picher City Council endorses Quapaw Tribe's water-service plan

By Debbie Robinson

PICHER, Okla. — Water service in Picher apparently will continue as long as there are residents in the shrinking former mining town.

The Picher City Council voted Monday night to accept a tentative proposal from the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma to assume ownership and operation of one of the town’s water wells for continued service.

The plan also calls for installing a waterline to Quapaw for use as a backup water source for that town.

The agreement is contingent on approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development agency, which holds a lien of more than $400,000 just for the well, excluding waterlines.

The city of Quapaw also has been lobbying for ownership of the well.

About 20 people attended the meeting to learn the fate of their water and sewer service.

City Attorney Erik Johnson said the agreement hinges on the tribe’s willingness to provide continuous water for residents in the Picher area who decline to participate in the federal buyout, and to extend the waterline to Quapaw.

The vast majority of the residents of the town have been bought out in the federal plan to give residents the opportunity to move away from the area, which is plagued by environmental contamination left by lead and zinc mining, and the risk of cave-ins posed by underground mines.

Quapaw proposed extension of the waterline from Picher to Quapaw at a cost of $387,000 that would be financed with grants.

The city of Quapaw also was proposing that the Picher well serve as a backup to a well in Cardin already owned by the Quapaw Tribe.

Under the posed agreement, the Quapaw Tribe would pay $100,000 toward the cost of a waterline extension to Quapaw from Picher.

Details are sketchy, and the deal apparently still hinges on grant approval and the Quapaw Tribe’s participation in the cost of extending a line to Quapaw.

Under the tentative plan, the tribe also would provide septic systems for homes once the city’s sewage lagoon is shut down.

“If a resident chooses to stay here, they shouldn’t have to throw their excrement in the backyard,” Johnson said.

Tim Kent, environmental director for the Quapaw Tribe, said the tribe would provide septic systems for the remaining residents and charge them about what they currently are paying for sewer service until the costs are repaid.

Kent said the tribe’s proposal to continue water service would apply only to existing residents.

“As of right now, we’re still going to have the lagoon system,” said Mayor Tim Reeves.

Johnson said the city has received a commitment from Empire District Electric Co. to continue electric service to Picher residents.

“You’re one of about 150 people who contacted City Hall today that think the water is going to be shut off and they can’t take a shower,” Reeves said in response to a resident’s question. “That’s just not the case.”

As for streets, Reeves said a decision on transferring ownership of the roadways would be made later this year.

Tribal land

Much, but not all, of the land in the Picher area is in federal trust to the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma. Once the federal buyout is complete, tribal land will revert to the tribe.