Oklahoma’s state leaders show support of upstream flood control dams in multiple ways

By Bryan Painter

Respect the past and look to the future. The Oklahoma legislature continues to recognize the importance of the operation and maintenance of Oklahoma’s 2,107 upstream flood control dams. They understand what those flood control dams mean in terms of human safety and protection of property/infrastructure.

These are “when, not if situations” and the Oklahoma Legislature and Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt continue to be proactive.

Governor Stitt signed into law the general appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY’21). The FY2021 Budget includes $1 million for rural dam improvement. This will go toward the operation and maintenance of flood control dams.

However, there’s also another form of support that is also significant, and that was the passage of SB 1938, authorizing the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority for bond issuance in the amount of $17.5 million on behalf of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. This too received the Governor’s signature. These funds will be used for the repair and rehabilitation of high-hazard dams pursuant to the Conservation District Act. Trey Lam, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission explained, “These dams are high-hazard dams, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because people live below them.” Some of these are also water supplies for communities.  Also, in the case of the bonds, they will help to secure a 2:1 federal match in funding.

“I applaud our legislators for having the foresight to commit to keeping Oklahomans safe for decades to come,” Lam said. “The time to plan, construct, maintain and repair dams is not after devastating floods. Oklahoma’s elected officials continue a long line of visionaries dating back to the 1940s anticipating the need for infrastructure repair and maintenance.”

Overall, the state has 2,107 such flood control dams and those protect homes, businesses, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, as well as crops, farmland, and ranch land.

Not only does this go directly toward the operation and maintenance of flood control dams, but it also provides a required step toward the rehabilitation of dams that have reached or are nearing their 50-year designed lifespan.

“In Oklahoma, you can look back to May 2019 as an example of the importance of this state’s flood control dams,” Lam said. “The storms brought with them loss of life, and our thoughts and prayers continue to be with those families. Those storms also brought loss of property, which is tragic. We also saw flood control dams work as they should to protect lives, and also property. Operation and maintenance means keeping/maintaining the dams to a basic level, but you don’t qualify for rehabilitation unless you perform the operation and maintenance. So if we have these high-hazard dams, we’ve got to do the operation and maintenance before we can do the rehab. The ones that we’ve got scheduled, we’ve done the maintenance on, this just keeps the operation and maintenance going on all our other dams  so as projects become available in the future, then we can rehabilitate them. We have seen tremendous support for flood control dams at the federal level from those such as U.S. Congressman Frank Lucas and the state level from the legislature and the Governor. They acted in support of these structures before the massive rains ever arrived.”

Benefits of watershed projects

Watershed projects were based on the conservation principal of holding the raindrop high in the watershed as close to where it strikes the ground as possible. The watershed programs are a good example of federal, state and local partnerships coming together to address natural resources issues. Watershed projects are federal-assisted, not federally owned. NRCS provided funds to plan, design, and construct the dams. Project sponsors, typically local conservation districts, are responsible for operation and maintenance of the dams to assure they continue to function as there were designed.

Oklahoma has 129 watershed projects in 64 counties. These projects include the 2,107 flood control dams and provide multiple benefits to citizens. Most of the 2,107 dams are located on private lands in rural areas and many people don’t even know they exist, let alone how much they affect their daily lives.  Most people don’t know they were constructed for flood control. How does that benefit agriculture producers as well as non-producers? The average benefits provided by Oklahoma’s Watershed Projects is over $96 million each year. 

Nine out of 10 Oklahomans are living within 20 miles of a flood control dam. Flood control dams are close to all Oklahomans who live, work and play under their protection every day. Flood control makes modern Oklahoma life possible in many rural communities.

Again, look back to last year. A Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) ‘National Watershed Benefits’ computer model estimates the daily monetary benefits resulting from watershed projects for a specific storm. These benefits are essentially the damages that would have occurred from that storm had the dams not been built. The report detailed over $33.3 million in monetary benefits resulting from the watershed projects in Oklahoma from storms that occurred in May of 2019.

Oklahoma has been a national leader in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Watershed program since the 1940s when Soil Conservation Service (SCS) watershed authorizations were being deliberated. The first of the 12,000 watershed dams constructed in 47 states was built near Cordell, Oklahoma in 1948. 

The number of dams built each year peaked in 1965 when 157 dams were built.  During the decade of the 1960s, an average of two watershed dams were constructed each week. Many of the watershed dams in Oklahoma are reaching the end of that 50-year designed lifespan. Since most of the dams were designed with a 50-year design life, during the decade of the 2010s, two dams came to the end of their evaluated life each week. So in addition to the 1,380 watershed dams that had reached the end of their evaluated life by 2019, an additional 245 dams will reach that mark within the next five years.

However, just because a dam exceeds its evaluated life, it does not mean that it won’t safely function as designed for many years longer if properly maintained. Still, funds are critically needed to maintain these dams so that they can function as designed and remain safe. Watershed dams are an important part of the public infrastructure that must be attended to. If funds are not provided for maintenance, not only will devastating flooding return in the areas prior to the projects being constructed, but lives will be at-risk.

Rehabilitation of these aging dams is a priority in Oklahoma, so that they can continue to protect people’s lives, property, and natural resources for the next 100 years. To date, 54 rehabilitation projects have been authorized; 38 of these projects have been completed to meet current safety and design standards. The remainder are in various stages of design or construction.

Tammy Sawatzky, the OCC Conservation Programs Division director, added that many of these are old, but, “It doesn’t mean they are unsafe. These dams were designed and built for a 50-year life and with rehabilitation, it will extend it to a 100-year life.”

Read more in the August 2020 issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.