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

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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.

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Adding years to the significantly important lives of Oklahoma’s Flood Control Dams

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Recentlylocal, state, and federal officials toured the Upper Elk Creek Site 23D Rehabilitation on the east edge of Elk City, Okla.

New life is being given to this flood control dam and the tour was a way to showcase those efforts along with the watershed project sponsor, North Fork of Red River Conservation District. Originally constructed in 1976 at a cost of $102,401 and classified as a significant hazard dam, this is now a high hazard dam. An increase in risk of loss of life and property damage due to a potential overtopping breach of the dam during an extreme flood event is the reason site 23D is undergoing this rehabilitation.

Although Site 23D is functioning as originally planned and providing downstream flood damage prevention, this rehabilitation means that in the future, Site 23D will reduce the potential of a dam breach and subsequent potential damage to downstream properties and infrastructure and will reduce the risk of loss of life. Additionally, the rehabilitation of site 23D allows for the service life of the dam to be extended for at least a century.

In this project, the top of dam elevation is being increased by 4.4 feet. Due to the raised top of dam elevation, the county road is being raised as well. A new 30-inch reinforced concrete pipe is being installed using a technique known as “jack and bore.” Articulated concrete blocks (ACBs) are being added to the exit channel of the spillway to provide erosion protection and prevent head cutting. The contractor for the rehabilitation construction is C-P Integrated Services, Inc., of Oklahoma City. The rehabilitation construction costs are $4.3 million, 65 percent of this cost is provided by the federal government while 35 percent is provided by the Conservation Commission on behalf of the watershed project sponsor, North Fork of Red River Conservation District.

The upstream flood control dams have received incredible support from Oklahoma’s congressional and state leaders.

One form of support that is significant 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. These funds are being 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, said, “This gathering captured a true picture of what created and has maintained the small watershed program for nearly 80 years.  The dedicated and visionary North Fork of the Red River Conservation District Board hosted Elk City officials, a Conservation Commissioner and staff, along with Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur and State Representative Todd Russ, USDA-NRCS engineers and staff. We were also very honored to have Congressman Frank Lucas and his field staff join us. The Watershed Program works best as a partnership of local, state and federal entities with a common goal of preventing devastating flooding while putting conservation on the ground in the watershed.  The 2,107 flood control structures in Oklahoma would never have been built without such a strong partnership.  All the partners are just as dedicated to maintaining the level of flood protection today and for the next 100 years.”

During the tour, U.S. Congressman Frank Lucas, a native of western Oklahoma and a longtime champion of the upstream flood control program, said, “In conservation these are the good old days; all we have to do is continue to work together and there will be benefits for generations to come. Am I proud of what we have done together? You bet. Thank you to each of you for doing what you do and thank you for helping me do what I do. Together we are going to make such a difference that the people downstream will never know it happened. That’s the ultimate compliment when things work so well that people don’t even know what you’ve done.”

Chris Stoner, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Oklahoma State Conservation Engineer, said, “It was great to see the support from all different levels today with city, county, state and federal officials all in attendance. It was good for everyone to see a job that is under construction to show the scale and complexities of these rehabilitation projects.”

The 2,107 upstream flood control dams constructed in Oklahoma — the most of any state in the nation — have established a $2 billion infrastructure that provides benefits to thousands of citizens. In fact, it’s estimated that the dams and accompanying conservation practices in the watersheds provide approximately $96 million in benefits each year.  Not only do they provide flood and erosion control to over two million acres of agricultural land in downstream flood plains, but they also provide sources of water for livestock and irrigation and habitats for wildlife. There are 42 flood control dams that were constructed as multi-purpose structures, which provide municipal and rural water supplies and recreation areas for local communities.

Altogether, the flood control dams in Oklahoma protect 2,756 county and highway bridges; provide a reduction in flooding for 41,744 farms and ranches; trap 19 million tons of sediment each year, which would otherwise end up in major streams and lakes, and they create or enhance 90,979 acres of wetlands.

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THE FUTURE OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE AND REGENERATIVE RANCHING

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The idea of managing ranches with a focus on building healthy soils and implementing management that promotes healthy wildlife populations and their habitats, biologically diverse plant communities and livestock production is not a new concept. It is, however, a concept that depends on producers who are driven toward those outcomes.

As we look to the future, the external challenges facing U.S. producers will only become more intense. As the U.S. population grows toward a predicted 438 million people by 2050, the demand for food and land will increase.

Many questions are currently being asked. Do we continue to promote management that maximizes production on smaller acreages at the expense of land health, or are there alternative strategies that are productive and profitable while regenerating land?

The majority of our grazing lands are generally not well suited for cropland food production, yet they serve our planet by storing more than 30% of global soil organic carbon. Such intrinsic outcomes are called ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the many and various benefits provided to humankind by healthy and functioning ecosystems.

Aldo Leopold once famously stated, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” Opportunities to compensate producers for the production of multiple ecosystem services are currently in development. Ecosystem services are often grouped into functional areas of soil, air, water, plants and animals.

Many of the questions around the production of ecosystem services are common to most emerging markets, and these questions are not lost on regenerative ranching. Largely, much of the research focus in the future will be placed on which metrics matter, how do we most aptly measure them, how are they influenced by management, and can they be monitored at scales that are relevant to producers?

One of the cornerstones of regenerative ranching is a focus on diversifying products, therefore the diversification of market opportunities will continue to be an option for producers interested in regenerating landscapes.

With more data comes more understanding of the value of ecosystem services: how they could be a potential revenue stream and how they impact increased health and function on existing production enterprises.

Managing regeneratively allows our living soil to sequester organic carbon, which aids in climate mitigation strategies. Increasing organic matter provides our soils a greater ability to build aggregation, which allows it to hold more water and further serve as a filter to increase water quality and quantity. Biodiversity is also an outcome, from the soil microbiome to more functional habitats for wildlife species. These are all services provided by regenerative producers that benefit society as a whole.

Regenerative ranching has a positive future. More and more producers are questioning their conventional methods, measuring their outcomes and defining goals that include regenerative solutions. These are and will continue to be positive developments for the agriculture industry and for society as a whole. The question we should all ask ourselves is, what would a future look like without regenerative ranching?

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Suzy Landess: Conservation carries history into the future

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Feeling a connection to the land you live on is special.

However, appreciating such a connection that stretches back in time 134 years is almost indescribable.

At any given time, Suzy Landess doesn’t have to look at her family tree to appreciate history. Instead she can gaze upon the plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Landess lives and ranches southeast of Guymon on the very land her great-great-great grandparents settled in 1886. That’s why when explaining the present, she starts with the past.

“My ancestors designed this ranch for cattle to water out of the creeks,” said Landess, who lives on the land her grandmother, Pearl Vantine, was born on. “Pastures were set up for rotational grazing along the creeks where the trees also provided shade and shelter for cattle and wildlife.  As water in the creeks dwindled, my grandparents looked to windmills to provide a water source for livestock.”

Today, her family’s operation runs stocker cattle and commercial cow/calf pairs. 

“This area of Oklahoma has changed since it was settled by the pioneers in the late 1800s,” she said. “Creeks and rivers crisscrossed the Panhandle and provided a water source for buffalo, cattle and early settlers.  Today, water is a precious resource in the Panhandle.  We no longer have creeks and rivers flowing and we now rely strictly on the Ogallala Aquifer for water in this region.”

Conservation has always played a significant role in ensuring that history continues.

“Conservation has been a way of life for me,” she said. “I have always known that it was up to me to be a good steward of this land.  My grandmother always said that ‘This is God’s land and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the land.’ ”

She can’t remember a time when they didn’t use rotational grazing practices and they have tried to maintain a certain amount of forage growth in all of our pastures. Plus, they have placed dirt tanks near their stock tanks in hopes of catching run-off water for cattle to drink to take the strain off their stock wells.   

“Throughout the years, we have participated in many conservation programs through the FSA (Farm Service Agency) and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service),” Landess said. “With the assistance of NRCS, my grandparents built dams in low areas and ravines in hopes of catching run-off rain water for livestock to drink.  We converted abandoned irrigation wells into livestock wells.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) has helped them run water lines and drill new wells on the ranch to improve the water on the ranch.

In the 1980s, Landess’ grandparents enrolled their farmland in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and they still have ground in the program.  Too, they began participating in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) at the turn of the century.  Through the CSP program, they were able to improve their management practices and learn detailed information about the nutrition that their grass provided.

There are many examples on the ranch of adapting to fit present needs.

“My grandfather Mark Vantine placed large 41-foot tanks on the ranch to water livestock,” she said. “I used those tanks as a water source for two pastures by placing fence lines down the middle so cattle could water from the same tank on both sides of the fence.   As the windmills that my grandparents built started to need more and more repairs, I began to replace those windmills with solar pumps.  We practice rotational grazing which is similar to the native buffalo’s flash grazing or cell grazing.”

By these and other conservation practices, she says they are taking good care of the land, and in turn the land takes care of their family.   

In turn, Suzy and husband Bill Landess share their passion for conservation with others. Landess is a member of the Texas County Conservation Board and the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. 

“I enjoy being a contributor to some of the boards that help producers in the Panhandle conserve our natural resources for future generations,” said Landess, who is also a member of the Oklahoma Cattleman’s Association and the Texas Southwest Cattle Raisers Association. “I have great respect for others who realize the responsibility that we have to be good stewards of the land and water resources.  It is our duty to ensure that future generations have access to quality water sources and that they are able to carry on the legacy of American agriculture.”

Today, Landess son, Mark Landess, helps run the ranch.  They are continually looking for ways to improve the pasture, soil and water on the ranch.

“Just as we taught Mark to be a good steward of the land, he is now teaching his children to do the same,” she said.

At that point, she once again returns the conversation to the past to explain the importance of the present and future.

“My grandmother (Pearl Vantine) is my mentor,” Landess said. “She learned to swim in the Coldwater Creek just north of my house and they often ate fish that they caught in the creek.  She indoctrinated in me the importance of conserving our natural resources and persevering the land for future generations.”

 Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma Blue Thumb Calendar highlights important information about conservation, has a featured producer(s) in the months of February through October, and provides contact information for both Blue Thumb staff and Conservation Districts. Plus, this year’s project includes an in-depth producer(s) feature story, such as the one you just read. Landess is featured in April of the calendar. If you would like a copy of the free 2021 Blue Thumb Calendar, please contact Blue Thumb Program Director Rebecca Bond at Rebecca.bond@conservation.ok.gov.  

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