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Problems with Oklahoma's flood dams gain attention

The recent rupture of an earthen dam in Hawaii should serve as a warning to Oklahoma: It’s time to focus on the rehabilitation of local flood control dams, according to the president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

“The dam break in Hawaii should wake everyone up as to the seriousness of allowing dams to fail,” said Dan Lowrance, OACD president in Oklahoma City, Okla. “Most Oklahomans fail to realize that our state has more flood control dams than any other state in the Union and that without repair it will be Oklahoma instead of Hawaii in the news.”

On March 14, a 40-foot high, 1,800-foot long dam designed to capture runoff from small streams ruptured on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. At least seven people are presumed dead and several houses were destroyed by the floodwater. In addition, a state highway was temporarily closed because of damage from the dam breach.

“This dam was situated in an area similar to many of our states’ flood control dams,” Lowrance said. “This was a dam originally built in an agricultural area away from people, so it was constructed as a ‘low hazard’ dam. Over time, people moved below and around this dam, adding to the danger associated with a potential breach, just like many Oklahoma flood control structures – especially those around Oklahoma City. As is the case in many Oklahoma locations, a state highway was in the path of the potential wall of water that would come from a dam breach. In addition, Hawaii was behind in assessing and improving its dams and in Oklahoma we continue to find additional repair work that must be addressed. This should serve as a wake up call for our state.”

Lowrance said the state is looking at several ways to address this problem, including additional funding through the legislature.

“Last year we received additional dollars for watershed dam rehabilitation and operation and maintenance,” Lowrance said. “This year, Gov. Henry requested up to $10 million through a conservation bond program for rebuilding and rehabilitating our highest priority dams. This is the same bond package that Rep. Don Armes (R-Faxon) and Sen. Jay Paul Gumm (D-Durant) introduced last year. This measure passed the Senate on the last day of session in 2005, but is still before the House. The state House just this week passed a bill by Rep. Curt Roggow (R-Enid) that would earmark money for dam rehab and other conservation practices, and I know this and other conservation issues are extremely important to Sen. Jeff Rabon (D-Hugo), who chairs the Natural Resources Budget Sub-Committee in the Senate, so we are hopeful that more action will be taken this spring.”

Lowrance said any funds appropriated by the state to rehabilitate these dams would be matched two-to-one by the federal government.

“Congressman Frank Lucas was instrumental in getting the federal rehabilitation program up and running,” Lowrance said. “We are concerned about future funding, but if we can provide our state match this year, we can capture these funds.”

According to Lowrance, everyone in Oklahoma should be concerned with dam safety and watershed rehabilitation.

“We need to make sure that our legislators act to ensure additional rehab money this year and that our congressional delegation works to protect the national watershed program,” Lowrance said. “Unfortunately some in the federal administration have proposed greatly reducing or doing away with this program. That would exacerbate the problems facing the states. It’s too important for that. If you don’t believe it, look what happened in Hawaii. We don’t want something like that happening here.”

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