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Floods expose need to repair Oklahoma dams

 The Journal Record | June 6, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY – Floods across the state have brought to attention Oklahoma’s complacency in maintaining its watershed and conservation dam system, conservation officials said.

State legislators have approved about $2 million for systemic upkeep costs, Oklahoma Conservation Commission Executive Director Trey Lam said Thursday, but that figure will likely need to be increased next year.

Many of the state’s watershed flood-control dams were built from the 1950s through the 1970s, a congressional response to the Dust Bowl that drove Oklahoma farmers to other states. As was proven then, land that’s already stressed cannot hold enough heavy rainfall to prevent more problems after a drought, so more than 12,000 levees were built throughout the region to briefly detain runoff to minimize more widespread damage.

Engineering standards of the era projected a 50-year life span for the dams. Those expiration dates are now coming to pass, at a rate of about two dams per week, Caldwell said. The damage done in Tulsa’s corner of the state shows how important it is to keep the system healthy.

Tulsa city officials say about 600 Tulsa County homes and business were inundated during last week’s historic flooding along the swollen Arkansas River. Sand Springs was among the first communities flooded when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing more water from a dam upriver to control more severe flooding elsewhere.

Representatives of Union Pacific Railway and Burlington Northern Santa Fe said freight operations have been affected across Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas due to storm and flood damage. Those lines are a primary transport mode for grain commodities grown in Oklahoma. And flooding in and around Tulsa has effectively shut down commercial navigation at the Port of Catoosa for several weeks.

“We’re seeing more of these extreme weather events as the climate changes,” said Clay Pope, a coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Plains Climate Hub. “Producers that are trying to harden their practices in preparation for these events – minimizing tillage, increasing organic matter – that’s what we need to be looking at.”

“Our partners in the USDA are trying to push us to better prepare for those extreme weather events,” he said. “Upstream flood-control structures are a key component of those efforts, and it’s important that we maintain those improvements and even expand on them.”

Lam said the state Legislature has appropriated about $500,000 annually toward operational maintenance of levees, much of which is paid to staff to travel the state for inspections and simple repairs. That figure has been cut back for the last several years due to state budget shortfalls, but it was finally raised to about $2 million last year.

That was well before floods raised awareness of the dams’ importance. Lam said equipment bought with a 10-year-old bond issue has also nearly expired.

“We could probably use a little more funding from the Legislature,” Lam said. “The figure we’re looking at now is about $4 million, not counting any damage that’s occurred in recent flooding.

“Our levees are too important to not maintain, as we’ve just seen,” he said.

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