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All the ruin wrought by the recent rains has me thinking about Tulsa’s levee system.
Stay with me here.
I know there is absolutely nothing sexy about levees, those earthen embankments with “toe drains” and “pump stations” in them. But I also know that the Tulsa area’s 21-mile levee system protects hundreds of thousands of lives and property worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and that it’s broken.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the levee system “unacceptable” in 2008, and that designation remains today.
Among the 15,000 levees under review by the Corps, the Tulsa levee is one of relatively few designated as “high risk.”
“What the means is that we don’t have a level of confidence that it is going to perform reliably,” said Jaime Watts with the Corps. “We would expect something erratic would happen.”
District 12 Levee Commissioner Todd Kilpatrick has been leading the charge to fix the levee system since taking the commissioner’s job in 2012.
But on Monday he presented Tulsa County commissioners with more bad news: A recent evaluation of the 70-year-old levee system by the Corps uncovered more than 450 potential ways the levee could fail.
“We know with the deficiencies it has, it is not going to perform up to the standards it was built to,” Kilpatrick said.
County Commissioner Karen Keith seized on the bad news to renew her pitch that funds to repair the levee system be included in the proposal to build low-water dams in the Arkansas River. That vote is expected to take place in the fall.
“I think we need to do the full $35 million,” to repair the levees, Keith said.
For more than a year, the Tulsa City Council’s Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force has been considering whether to build low-water dams in Sand Springs, Tulsa, south Tulsa/Jenks and Bixby.
The current total cost estimate is $235.3 million, which does not include a penny for levee repairs. The dams would be funded as part of a Vision 2025 sales tax renewal beginning in 2017, should voters approve it.
Task force Chairman and City Councilor G.T. Bynum is not opposed to fixing the levees. He’s just not sure the funding should be included in the dam proposal.
The experts consulted by the task force regarding the levees, Bynum noted Monday, say construction of the dams would have no impact on the levee system.
Watts concurred Tuesday, saying the Corps would not allow a dam to be built that would negatively affect the levee system.
“Our focus is life safety,” she said. “That is our mandate with the levee safety program.”
One more issue clouding the water: The actual cost to repair the levees won’t be known until the Corps finishes its evaluation later this year.
So, Bynum said, the question is: “Do we broaden the scope (of the funding package) a bit?”
The answer will come soon. The task force could put the finishing touches on its proposal as early as Thursday.