Oklahoma Dams Go Without Maintenance
Filed by Ben Allen in Local News.
August 16, 2011
Chandler, Oklahoma is a typical American small town. An active Main Street stretches a couple blocks, with restaurants, a pharmacy, a bank and various stores crowding both sides of the street.
But the town, 45 minutes northeast of Oklahoma City, is also facing increased risk. It’s protected from floodwaters by Chandler Lake, maintained by the state and federal government.
Cuts to the Natural Resource Conservation Service have forced the agency to abandon maintaining the structures. Built in the fifties and sixties, many of the dams are coming due for work now.
“Once [the dam] reaches the end of its designed life it starts to deteriorate and we’re going to see more and more problems pop up,” said Bill Porter, Assistant Conservation with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
For Ruth Key and her husband Gerald, that’s not what they want to hear. Gerald’s lived in Chandler for 91 years, Ruth for much of that time. Before Chandler Lake existed, areas of the town stood empty because of the risk of flooding. But now, houses and the high school lie in those flood plains.
“One of these days we’ll have another big rain and I have seen it where you’d have to swim across it, from hill to hill,” said Ruth Key.
Halfway across the state, is Caddo County. Danielle Whaley is District Conservationist for the county.
“Landowners that purchase the property sometimes don’t even know what they are. They just think, ‘Oh, there’s a nice lake.’ And I think the public perception on that is that they’re just not aware that not only is it a nice pretty big lake with some big fish in it, downstream there’s a house behind the dam and if that washes out, who is going to be the first to go?” said Whaley.
The dams were not just built to keep homes safe and dry. For farmers, they’re practically essential. They provide water when their crops and cattle need it, and shield their land from flooding during downpours. If those structures break down, flooding could wipe out croplands, putting further stress on a strained food supply.
“So to take a step backwards and say ‘Wow, we don’t need any more watershed funding let’s just cut that off,’ it’s a hard thing to grasp in my mind because it’s such a big part of Oklahoma,” said Whaley.
In January, Congress turned the funding faucet down from a flood to a trickle. Porter said that leaves just enough money to finish projects that are already pushing dirt, and do some engineering plans for future work.
“The silent impact is the people down below it. All of a sudden the dam may not be as safe as it could be if we rehabilitated it. There’s a definite risk for the people down below it,” said Porter.
The Oklahoma Conservation Commission says nearly 200 structures need an upgrade, as they’ve gone from low hazard to high hazard when people moved in downstream. But in the state, only seven projects are currently under construction. Next year, Porter says NRCS will only have money to finish up that work. According to the most recent report from the group, Oklahoma needs $271 million to fully secure all of the state’s watersheds, the most in the nation.
“I think everybody’s depressed. I think they have struggled for years to keep that funding on that table. Years and years and years they always pushed that funding across and I think finally we’re at the bottom of the deficit, we’re at the bottom of the, we’ve got to cut some things and that just happens to be the thing we’re going to cut,” said Whaley.
Danny Rycroft moved to Chandler in 2004, and came up with a simple solution to protect himself from flooding.
“I live on a hill. I would never by a house in a low area. And so I’m not too worried about it,” said Rycroft.
Not everyone can live on a hill, though. Chandler residents can only hope the dam holds, just as many other communities across the state have their fingers crossed.