By KEVIN CANFIELD
You might have heard about a plan to build low-water dams in the Arkansas River.
Last week, the plan changed.
City Councilor G.T. Bynum, chairman of the Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force, has pitched a new idea. The Frontier asked Bynum to explain the changes to the dam proposal and why they were made.
“This entire process we’ve gone through for the last two years has been a sincere attempt by committed participants to put forth the best proposal we can,” Bynum said.
“Every piece of information we’ve gathered and every town hall we’ve conducted has been useful in that regard. The ultimate goal here is to put forward a proposal that we can be proud to ask our family, our friends, and our neighbors to support. We will keep working until we get there.”
The Frontier: On Wednesday you suggested that the Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force consider adopting a phased approach to building low-water dams in the river.
Please explain the new approach and how it differs from the proposal presented at recent town hall meeting.
Bynum: The Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force spent 18 months studying issues around river infrastructure and then developed a draft proposal for public consideration.
That draft proposal was intended as an informed foundation for public discussion. Instead of saying, “Hey, what does everyone think of river development?” we wanted to offer a detailed idea of what that could look like and then hear what people liked and didn’t like about it.
We spent a month holding town hall meetings throughout our respective communities, and a few general trends popped up in Tulsa.
Tulsans felt like it didn’t put enough water inside the Tulsa city limits and they felt like their tax dollars would be going to subsidize the construction of dams in other communities.
Tulsa would be contributing approximately 90 percent of the sales tax dollars to the program under the draft proposal, while other communities would be in the single digits. Given that ratio, it became evident that Tulsans expect a similar degree of benefit. This proposal is an attempt to make the cost-to-benefit ratio more equitable.
So several of us spent the last few weeks discussing alternatives and this is the one I have offered for the consideration of our full task force Thursday.
The latest proposal calls for rebuilding the Zink Dam at 29th and Riverside, building a new dam at 49th and Riverside, building a new dam at 103rd and Riverside, and providing local matching funds for a federal government repair of our levee system.
This differs from the original proposal in that it does not include dams in Sand Springs and Bixby, and it would include some dredging work to make the southernmost lake in Tulsa and Jenks longer.
Another difference is that my recommendation to our task force does away with the creation of an economic development district for taxing purposes. The more we discussed that approach as a task force, the more risky it appeared due to it being a brand new funding mechanism under Oklahoma law.
The nightmare scenario would be to spend two years developing a proposal, the voters approve it, and then it gets tied up in the courts for years and possibly nullified.
It seemed an unnecessary risk so my recommendation to the task force does not include it.
Q. What is the cost difference between the two approaches?
A. Cost estimates are under way for a 49th Street Dam, but it is similar in scope and size to the Bixby Dam in the original proposal so it is expected to cost a similar amount.
The net cost savings here would be from the elimination of the Sand Springs Dam, which when you consider all related expenses to build would have cost approximately $100 million.
(The original four-dam proposal had an estimated cost of $298 million).
Q. What is the benefit of building a dam at 49th Street and Riverside Drive, and why there?
A. The benefit of building a dam at 49th & Riverside is that it impounds more water inside the Tulsa city limits, providing more opportunities for recreation and economic development.
It is placed there so it is upstream from the Interstate-44 bridge and Cherry Creek, which empties into the Arkansas River just north of the I-44 bridge. We cannot build a dam further south in that near vicinity due to the city of Tulsa’s wastewater treatment plant discharge of treated water.
Q. Who will make the final decision about what dam proposal will be presented to voters, and when do you expect the final plan to be in place?
A: The ultimate decision for a recommendation to the relative cities lies with the full Arkansas River Infrastructure Task Force. My recommendation is simply one for the full group’s consideration.
That said, the decision on what goes to a ballot resides with the respective local governments and the ultimate decision on funding resides with the voters.
Q. You have been consistent in saying that the proposal presented at town hall meetings was just that — a proposal subject to change. Yet the decision to explore a phased approach seems to have caught some people by surprise. Why do you think that is?
A. One of the things we discovered in the town hall meetings is that citizens in our community have become accustomed to elected officials telling them what they get to vote on and then explaining it to them — rather than asking them for their help in formulating a proposal.
Our task force chose the latter route, and what you see occurring right now is an attempt to respond to the very legitimate concerns our fellow Tulsans raised over the course of a month of discussions throughout the city.
Q. Did you discuss the phased approach with the affected communities, specifically Sand Springs and Bixby, before making your suggestion?
A. Yes, I began discussing this approach with city leaders in each community immediately after our town halls concluded when the need for a change was evident.
Q. What do you say to the residents of Sand Springs and Bixby who may feel they are being left behind?
A. It is difficult to demonstrate to Tulsans the value of low-water dams when the primary reference point they have is Zink Dam – a run-down, poorly-maintained dam that was never intended to be a focal point for economic development. (It was built as an amenity for RiverParks.)
Before we can ask our fellow Tulsans to broaden their horizons and look at this approach on a regional level, we first have to prove to them that it can be done right at a local level.
Q. You have previously said that the Sand Springs dam would play a key role in helping to maintain a steady flow of water through the city of Tulsa by acting as a sort of spigot that could be turned on and off. Does the city of Tulsa lose that capacity to regulate the water flow without the Sand Springs dam?
A. Our understanding of the contributions the Sand Springs dam would make to Tulsa’s lakes changed significantly in the last month.
Throughout our town hall presentations, Tulsans questioned its merits considering they would be paying the vast majority of the cost to build it.
Our initial understanding of its value to Tulsa was in two areas, both related to water storage:
1. Putting more water between our lakes in Tulsa, thus providing more shoreline without the need for a dam at 49th Street and;
2. Improving water quality in our lakes due to its ability to release water throughout the day instead of the single surge we get on most days when water is released from Keystone Dam for power generation.
As the questions mounted, we did more homework and we learned that:
1. The amount of water we would see between our lakes would be of minimal difference and;
2. The amount of water we’d be relying on for that flow from Sand Springs is already traveling through the corridor in Tulsa 88 percent of the time (with the Sand Springs Dam we could bump that up to around 92 percent).
With this new information in hand, our valuation of the Sand Springs dam from a Tulsa perspective changed substantially.
Q. How will the dams be paid for?
A. The program would be paid for by contributions from the renewal of Vision 2025 in the cities of Tulsa and Jenks. Additional potential funding sources are being considered.
Q. More specifically, under the Phase 1 plan, would Jenks residents be asked to pay for part of the south Tulsa/Jenks dam? If so, how much?
A. Yes, Jenks residents would be asked to pay for part of the dam at 103rd/Riverside. That has never been in question. A cost share agreement in that regard would need to be developed between our communities.
Q. All of this river discussion is happening as Tulsa and surrounding communities are trying to determine what other projects could be funded through the Vision 2025 renewal. Please explain how the dam proposal and the Vision 2025 renewal are related?
For example, would voters be allowed to vote separately on the dams and other Vision projects?
A. Every community involved has been considering the renewal of Vision 2025 as a primary funding source for the creation of lakes in the Arkansas River corridor. Specific ballot language has not been discussed by the task force and is ultimately up to the local municipalities.
Q. When will Tulsans vote on the Vision 2025 renewal?
A. The Tulsa City Council recently approved a resolution that has the mayor’s verbal support indicating our intent to hold an election in April 2016.
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