The Frontier published an in-depth look this week at the dangers of flooding upstream from Grand Lake as the Pensacola Dam undergoes federal relicensing. The story is based on extensive interviews, federal data and documents —some dating back to the 1930s. Here are five takeaways:
- The city of Miami, Okla., has experienced chronic flooding for decades. Over the past 20 years, flooding in the Miami area has become more frequent and average flood levels higher, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- Federal archive documents The Frontier obtained from a Miami city engineer show that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was aware of flooding caused by a backwater effect from Grand Lake since at least the early 1940s. In 1957, the Corps of Engineers recommended that if property in the Miami area was flooded, the owners should be paid for damages, rather than the government buying additional land because it would be cheaper, the records show.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issues licenses to operate Pensacola Dam, previously had the power to limit Grand Lake’s water level. But U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe authored legislation in 2020 that stripped the agency of that power once the state-run Grand River Dam Authority gets a new license. Inhofe’s legislation also prevented the federal regulator from requiring the Grand River Dam Authority to obtain flood easements or buy additional land from property owners outside of the project’s current boundaries, even if they are prone to flooding. Under its pending license application the Grand River Dam Authority states it will keep the lake level between three feet below flood stage up to flood stage year-round.
- Miami city officials, the Miami Tribe and a local environmental group, asked federal authorities to require the Grand River Dam Authority to study possibly heavy-metal contaminated sediment downstream from Tar Creek, which flows into the Neosho River and Grand Lake. The tribe’s monitoring has also shown elevated levels of heavy metals in the flora and fauna in the area. The Grand River Dam Authority opposed the study, even though it had the support of multiple state and federal agencies and area tribes. The Grand River Dam Authority claims the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should be responsible for any future studies on pollution from Tar Creek. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not yet approved any further study on contaminated sediment.
- In January 2022, a federal appeals court in Washington D.C issued a scathing order, requiring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider evidence the city of Miami says it has that flooding upstream is caused by Grand Lake and the Pensacola Dam, determine what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays in flooding and interpret Inhofe’s 2020 legislation.