Erin Brings Flooding to Okla. as Flood Control Funds Dry Up

August 20, 2007

Heavy rain and high winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin moved through Oklahoma early on Aug. 19 , flooding homes and roads and leading to power outages. More than five inches of rain fell in some areas of Central Oklahoma. In Watonga and Lawton, where several people were rescued from their homes or stalled cars, rainfall amounts exceeded seven inches.

The flooding occurred as a state official acknowledged federal funding for proposed flood control measures in Oklahoma has dried up.

Design work for 11 proposed flood control dams in Oklahoma is complete, but the projects lack the federal money required to build them, authorities said.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., requested $850,000 in federal money to begin building flood-control dams along Turkey Creek in Kingfisher County almost one year before flooding stranded motorists near Turkey Creek.

The request was wiped out at the last minute as the appropriations bill moved through Congress, Lucas said.

“It’s really difficult to get people to appreciate the importance of flood-control dams,” Lucas said. “With Turkey Creek we have such graphic property damage reports. You couldn’t get an expert to testify better before a committee. We’ve got real-world experience to stress why we need this.”

Oklahoma was the first state to use flood-control dams. The first dam opened shortly after a 1948 flood in Okmulgee that forced 2,000 people from their homes.

About two weeks after the flood, state and national conservation officials gathered in Cordell to dedicate the first-ever flood-control dam. Many who attended the dedication traveled on Route 66 through the Hydro area, where a recent flood had inundated thousands of acres of farmland and drowned 10 people, some of whom were washed off the roadway.

“It’s ironic, because a lot of the support for flood control in Oklahoma started in the Dust Bowl days,” said Larry Caldwell, watershed specialist for the National Resources Conservation Service.

“A better part of the state was destroyed. With the drought there was no vegetation to hold the water back. There was extensive flooding in 1934 and 1935,” Caldwell said.

Oklahoma has 2,105 watershed dams, more than any other state. But many of the dams are reaching the end of their 50-year life cycle, and officials worry that funds will not be available to keep the dams in good shape or repair the ones that have reached the end of their lifespan.

“I know it’s been said that these structures are victims of their own success,” Caldwell said. “People don’t realize the dams are there, let alone how they affect their daily lives. People don’t realize that they are protecting their communities.”

Fiscal year 2007 is the first year that Congress has not funded the federal dam program. No new watershed dams were built this year, even though many have been designed and just await construction dollars to begin the project, Caldwell said.

In the program’s heyday, two dams per week were built over a 15-year period that began in the late 1950s, Caldwell said.

If watershed dams were not in place, the state could experience at least $72 million in damages in a normal rainfall year, he said. In an uncharacteristically wet year like the first half of 2007, those damages could increase to $290 million in damages, Caldwell said.

At Turkey Creek alone, officials estimate two proposed dams would have prevented about $276,000 in damages between May and June, according to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

The slowdown in dam funding reflects the mood in Congress, Lucas said. Many issues before Congress affect large urban areas, and the needs of the rural population are sometimes harder to get support for.

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