Oklahoma’s state and federal leaders show support of flood control dams

Thinking ahead is important, but acting ahead is often critical.

From the U.S. Capitol  to the state Capitol, Oklahoma leaders acted in support of Oklahoma flood control dams well before the recent historic rains. 

The Long Branch watershed site is shown here at its fullest capacity but working as it should by running through the emergency spillway.

Last week, Governor Kevin Stitt signed into law the general appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY’20). The FY2020 Budget includes $1.5 million for rural dam improvement. This will go toward the operation and maintenance of flood control dams.

In April, the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority (the “Authority”) sold $5.116 million in bonds on behalf of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) for the rehabilitation of some flood control structures in the state. The Oklahoma Legislature came up with the bond proposal of $5.116 million. Governor Stitt and Secretary John Budd signed the bond purchase agreement on April 16, 2019.

Overall, the state has 2,107 such flood control dams protecting homes, businesses, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, as well as crops, farmland, and ranch land. The “however” to this is that by the end of this year, almost two-thirds of these dams (1,380) will have passed their 50-year design life. 

The reality is they can’t retire, they just need some remediation.

The steps taken in these last two months, go hand-in-hand.

“The recent storms have brought with them loss of life, and our thoughts and prayers are with those families,” said Trey Lam, executive director of the OCC. “Those storms have also brought loss of property, which is tragic. We have also seen 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 of 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.”

Long Branch 6A is showing running its emergency spillway.

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 $20 million in monetary benefits resulting from the watershed projects in Oklahoma from 6 a.m., May 1 to 6 a.m., May 28.

Through May 28, Oklahoma had received a statewide average of 9.80 inches of rain according to the Oklahoma Mesonet weather network. That not only puts May 2019 in the wettest Mays on record for Oklahoma, but also the fifth wettest month of any calendar month, dating back to 1895. That was with three days left to go in this month.

Rep. John Pfeiffer, whose district includes Noble and Kay Counties as well as Logan, Garfield and Grant Counties, said the ongoing rains are the best example of any of the need.

“I think the local weather, as much as anything, right now shows why it is important,” Pfeiffer said. “When they originally built all these low water dams it was to combat against half the state washing away when we have times like we have right now. A lot of those dams are reaching the end of their life expectancy and the federal government has a really good matching program that we were able to make good use of last year and we think it’s important to continue that so we can make sure these dams are upgraded and stay in place.”

Senator Roger Thompson, whose district includes Okfuskee and Okmulgee Counties as well as McIntosh and Muskogee Counties, said he had gone out and seen the work of the flood control dams and fully appreciates their importance.

“When I was first elected, I didn’t know much about conservation and the dams,” Thompson said. “So I went out and rode around with my local guy for a day and began to see the work that is going on, which is great, and then of course working with Jennifer Bailey over at the Okmulgee County Conservation District was also a great help. Right now in the midst of all of these floods these dams are holding, which is a terrific thing. When I started looking at the budget, as appropriations chair, I said, ‘Rural Oklahoma needs this and they need more of it.’ Therefore that’s one of the reasons I wanted to fight for it. It’s a good program that does a great job.”

Rep. Carl Newton, whose district includes Woodward County as well as Alfalfa, Major and Woods Counties, said the benefits of dams are evident in times of extreme opposite types of weather.

“Well it’s probably not any more evident that it is right now, the more of these smaller dams we can have out farther away from large lakes will catch some of the runoff and decrease the amount of pressure that is being put on these large lakes,” Newton said. “They can also be used for conservation uses by the farmers and the ranchers in their areas for water supply in times of drought. So, overall our watershed structures are very important for Oklahoma for protecting, but also providing for the needs that we have.”

State Rep. Kevin Wallace, whose district includes Lincoln County as well as Logan County, said, “In light of recent flooding and severe weather events throughout Oklahoma, I am certainly glad we appropriated this additional money for rural dam improvement in the coming fiscal year. This money in addition to what was given to the state Transportation Department and the County Improvement for Roads and Bridges fund will help until we are better able to assess our future needs after the recent rains.”

Congressman Lucas of Cheyenne, Okla., has been a long-time supporter of flood control dams and is proud to say , “They’re just doing their job.”

“As we’ve seen over the past few weeks, our state’s watershed structures are critical to the safety of our communities and our loved ones,” Lucas said. “In addition to protecting the lives of our families and friends, our watershed dams also protect the way of life for hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans. Whether it be a field of winter wheat or a county road that our state’s manufacturing and energy industries use to move goods across the state, our communities heavily rely on these often-overlooked structures.

“While many don’t often think about the 2,107 flood control dams protecting the homes, businesses, roads, bridges, and farmland from the recent flooding, the conservation leaders and advocates I talk to have only one thing to say: ‘They’re just doing their job.’  

“On the state level, I commend the efforts of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Oklahoma Legislature but it’s important that our leaders continue the rehabilitation of our watershed dams. While budget crises of previous years affected the rehabilitation of many of these structures, Oklahoma’s state leaders must ensure the further investment for the sake of our communities. Our state has suffered quite a bit and millions of agriculture products have likely been lost, but the damage could have been far worse.   

“Throughout my tenure in Congress, it has been a priority of mine to provide for the safety and flood control of many communities in Oklahoma. Recognizing that many of our watershed dams were in need of repair, I authored the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Act of 2000, ensuring the rehabilitation of watershed dams through the annual appropriations process as well as securing mandatory funding in previous farm bills. As a native Oklahoman myself, I know just how important these structures are to our way of life and while our state is currently facing flood levels we haven’t seen in years, I value the work done by so many to ensure the continued safety of our communities.”

Lucas led the  effort in the 2002 Farm Bill to amend the Act of 2000 to authorize $600 million in funding for rehabilitation for years 2003 through 2007. The federal government provides 65 percent of the funding for rehabilitation projects and project sponsors provide 35 percent. Sponsors make application for funding to the NRCS and projects are selected on a priority basis with those with high safety and health concerns receiving the highest priority. Funding comes from annual appropriations by Congress.

Oklahoma was the first state to complete a rehabilitation project. Just as the operation and maintenance goes hand-in-hand with the remediation, so too the federal level USDA NRCS partnership with the local level continues to be significant and successful. 

In April (2019) the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority (the “Authority”) sold $5.116 million in bonds on behalf of the OCC for the rehabilitation of some flood control structures in the state. Governor Kevin Stitt and Secretary John Budd signed the bond purchase agreement on April 16, 2019.

In this case, the sale was an example of OCC combining its physical and financial responsibilities to the people of Oklahoma.

“The main benefit is to protect the lives of Oklahomans who live below these dams,” Lam said. “These dams are high-hazard dams, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but just because people live below them. Also, in the case of Perry, Meeker and Wilburton, these are multi-purpose dams that provide either primary or secondary water supplies to communities across Oklahoma.”

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.”

Lam said the Authority refinanced what was remaining of an existing bond issue and combined it with the new $5.116 million bond.

“So now we have one bond that’s combined and it reduced the interest rate like you would save money in your home refinance,” Lam said.

By combining the refinancing of the existing bond issue and the new money bond issue, the OCC saved the State of Oklahoma $509,633.71.

Scott A. Reygers, Administrator of the Authority, said the combined bond issue is financed at a historically low all-in-true-interest cost of 2.43%.

In the 2014 Farm Bill, $256 million was provided for small watershed flood control dam rehabilitation. Over time, $32 million was made available to Oklahoma. However, this was in a cost-share scenario.

“The time period that it came in was during the budget crisis in Oklahoma and we had a hard time matching the federal funds,” Lam said in reference to a cost-share of 65 percent federal (United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA NRCS) and 35 percent state funds. “The original appropriation was $3 million and we later received another $1 million, but we were still short and the danger was that without the state matching funds, that money could be diverted to other states, such as to Texas that has an ongoing/revolving fund available for these projects.”

Again, the Oklahoma Legislature came up with a solid solution through the bond proposal of $5.116 million.

“So the Legislature approves it, then the bond authority approves the issuing of it and then it has to be taken out and sold by the Authority in the marketplace,” Lam said. “That’s when the interest rate is established. In this case, it was a good market.”

This was about more than just the present.

“In 2007 we had the inland hurricane that did a lot of damage to flood control and a $25 million bond was passed then,” Lam said. “We’ve been paying on that since then and have it paid down some. So similar to what you might do with a house, OCIA refinanced that portion. They paid off that bond at the same time that they sold these new bonds. Now we have one and with the reduced interest rate, it saved the state about a half of a million dollars.”