The History and Impact of the Watershed Program

Upper Black Bear Creek Watershed. Photo by Tammy Sawatzky.

Oklahoma has more man-made lakes than any other state in the nation and boasts over 55,000 miles of shoreline. How did a state with only oxbow and playa (think temporary) lakes come to have so much shoreline and so many lakes today? The answer is necessity and with a little help from conservation districts.

Throughout its history, Oklahoma has suffered from too much intense rain or severe bouts of drought. Oklahoma is known as the center of the Dustbowl, but few people realize that during the same time period there were massive floods that took lives and destroyed farms. These instances of severe weather were so dramatic that those living in Oklahoma during the middle 1900s had to figure out a way to prevent these floods and dust storms or flee the state – which many did. Those who stayed worked with their neighbors and local, state and federal government to come up with a plan to reduce flooding.

The idea that was proposed was a system of small dams that were upstream from the larger stream or river that they fed. These small dams could hold water runoff and then slowly release the water to the larger streams or river over time, instead of all at once. This plan would limit the amount of water hitting the main waterways at the same time and reduce flooding. This series of smaller dams was known as the small watershed concept. In addition to preventing flooding, the areas around the dams included grass plantings and terraces that helped reduce the amount of sediment that made its way into the lakes and streams. This helped to improve the quality of the water in the small lakes and waterways. The water and area around the dams provided habitat for fish and wildlife and recreational benefits and a drinking water supply to several municipalities and rural water districts.

The Washita Valley Improvement Association was formed after a massive flood in 1934 that killed 17 people. Through the Flood Control Act of 1936, the United States Congress authorized funding through the United States Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service to implement the small watershed program. For the program to be successful, it would need to have the support of individual private landowners who were willing to allow their land to be used for these small lakes. It also required a local entity to agree to assist with the planning, operation and maintenance of the dams. Conservation Districts took on the role of the local sponsor and assisted with feasibility studies, planning, operation and maintenance of the dams. Though the program was approved by Congress in 1936, it was not funded until a few years after the end of World War II in 1947.

In 1948, the conservation partnership in Oklahoma unveiled the first watershed dam in the United States. The Cloud Creek Watershed Dam was dedicated in July of 1948 to help prevent flooding in the Washita River watershed in Washita County. This event was the beginning of Oklahoma leading the way for upstream flood control structures in the nation. By 1952, the conservation partnership had completed the first watershed project, which included 24 dams in Roger Mills County. The concept worked well at taming floods, and Oklahoma began building dams at a rapid rate. By 1960, Oklahoma was building 100 dams a year.

To read more, pick up the October issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.