23 Floods in Just Three Years, but the Power Company Responsible Says ‘Not Our Problem’
Biden’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is looking at repeated flooding in and near Miami, Okla. – 23 floods from July 2007 to June 2010 – because a federal court required it.The flooding, which has been going on since the 1940s, spreads contamination from the Tar Creek Superfund site, one of the largest Superfund sites in our nation, to Miami-area neighborhoods.
Children in Ottawa County have higher blood lead levels than the average for children in Oklahoma, but the power company, Grand River Dam Authority, has balked at studying how flooding spreads lead and other heavy metals such as zinc and cadmium from the Superfund site.
The Grand River Dam Authority had almost $580 million in operating revenue in 2021, mostly from selling power, and grew about 10%, according to its latest audit. GRDA’s biggest customer is Google which has a data center at the MidAmerica Industrial Park near Pryor, Okla.
The Grand River Dam Authority, has balked at studying how flooding spreads lead and other heavy metals such as zinc and cadmium.
“GRDA provides Oklahoma with cheap electricity and so it doesn’t matter that they do it unfairly and illegally at the expense of the citizens of Miami and Ottawa County,” said Ben Loring, Miami’s city attorney.
The authority said the city wants it to spend more than $100 million to buy the rights to flood about 13,000 acres.
“The city would impose a new obligation upon GRDA, and, by extension, every hydropower licensee in the U.S. – to continually assess what lands could potentially be needed for the project, and to quickly acquire interests in such lands to avoid a violation,” wrote Charles Sensiba, the attorney for the authority.
GRDA got some help from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2019. Inhofe, who built a vacation home at Grand Lake in 1962, tucked an amendment in the $750 billion defense spending bill that would limit the ability of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to say how high the lake should be.
The Grand River was dammed as part of a New Deal project that ultimately linked Tulsa to the Gulf of Mexico with 18 locks and dams. The War Department decided in 1931 that building dams on the Grand-Neosho River wasn’t worth spending federal dollars.
But on June 13, 1936, a train carrying President Franklin Roosevelt, who was seeking his second term, stopped at the Katy station in Vinita, Okla. Roosevelt told an estimated 5,000 people that he hoped to “do something about” the proposed Grand River Dam, which is also known as the Pensacola Dam.
The authority, which was created in 1935, refused to accept the federal license to operate the dam until the lake level was set at 10 feet above what federal officials said was safe, eliminating much of the room that had been planned for flood storage. The dam was Oklahoma’s first hydroelectric power plant.
Flooding upstream of the Pensacola Dam is caused by something described in civil engineering terms as “backwater effects.” Miami is about 70 miles upstream from the dam.
The first big flood was in 1941 when water rose about 3 inches an hour in Miami. The water flooded the basement of the high school in Wyandotte.
Newt Graham, a Tulsa backer of the project, wrote that “inadequate flood control in Pensacola Dam is actually more dangerous to the lower valley than if no dam had been built.” He suggested the lowering level of Grand Lake by 10 feet and buying more land surrounding the lake to reduce damage from flooding.
But federal efforts to buy that land or the rights to flood the land dithered until 1957 when J.H. Dougherty, an acting district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers wrote what has come to be known as the “too dumb to complain” letter.
“Major floods inundate the whole area, and the owners are apparently accustomed to this condition which probably explains the absence of claims,” Dougherty wrote. “It is the opinion of this office that it would be much more economical to pay damages, when and if caused by the smaller floods, than to acquire the additional flowage rights.”
In the mid-1990s, property owners sued GRDA over property damage and won. Attorneys for Miami and Native American tribes have used those judgments to try to push federal regulators to curb flooding.
They essentially got nowhere until the ruling by the D.C. Circuit court that told FERC to look again at flooding. Now, Miami city officials have held a town meeting and are hoping they can finally get the federal bureaucracy to work for them.