MIAMI – The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has issued a legal notice regarding the availability of a draft environmental assessment and a comment filing period. Any comments on the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) should be filed by Feb. 6, 2017.

“Based on our independent review of the licensee’s proposed amendment, agency and public comments filed on the licensee’s proposal, and our review of environmental effects, we believe approval of GRDA’s proposal, with Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s mandatory Water Quality Conditions, is the preferred alternative. We recommend this alternative because, based on the information reviewed and analysis performed in this EA, it would provide several significant benefits with few measurable negative impacts,” FERC stated in their notice. “…Higher elevations at Grand Lake in late summer and early fall would provide a significant benefit to recreation by increasing the water surface area available for boating, improving access at public and private launching facilities, and likely decreasing shallow- water boating hazards. Higher seasonal water elevations would likely provide minor aesthetic improvements in some areas that were dewatered and devoid of vegetation in the past.”

Flooding

“As discussed earlier, most flood-related issues raised by commenters in this proceeding were reviewed during the Commission’s processing of GRDA’s temporary variance requests in 2015 and 2016 which involved the same changes in reservoir elevations. Staff’s findings on the flood-related issues were presented in the temporary variance orders. In the Water Quantity section above, staff summarizes those findings that would allow the same rule curve change each year for the remaining term of the license,” FERC states in the notice

Historic and cultural resource protection

“We found in our analysis that the proposed permanent rule curve change would occur within the project’s existing fluctuation limits and therefore, would be unlikely to affect any new lands. No land-clearing or land-disturbing activities would be required for this amendment. In addition, less fluctuating water levels should reduce the chances of erosion affecting cultural or historic resources in near-shore areas. Cultural and historic properties located on or near the shoreline would potentially be inundated for a longer period during the amendment, providing more cover and helping to prevent exposure. If anything, keeping water levels higher during the late summer and early fall period, when more people are present, would reduce the potential for artifact collection or looting. GRDA’s agreement to prepare specific plans in consultation with the Oklahoma SHPO and Oklahoma AS if either agency determines that historic properties might be affected would further protect cultural and historic resources,” FERC stated in their notice.

In accordance with the National Environmental Policy of 1969 and FERC regulations, the Office of Energy Projects has reviewed an application filed by the Grand River Dam Authority to permanently amend the reservoir elevation rule curve of the license for Pensacola Hydroelectric Project No. 1494.

If approved by FERC the amendment would allow GRDA to keep water levels in the project’s reservoir, Grand Lake ‘O the Cherokees also known as Grand Lake, up to two feet higher from August 16 through October 31 of each year. The project is located on the Grand (Neosho) River in Craig, Delaware, Mayes and Ottawa Counties in Oklahoma.

If the permanent rule curve is granted, between August 16 and September 15 each year, the project would be operated to target an elevation of 743 feet, which is two feet higher than the current rule curve. Between September 16 and September 30, the elevation target would be lowered from 743 to 742 feet. Between October 1 and October 31, operations would target an elevation of 742 feet, which is up to one foot higher than the current rule curve. After October 31, reservoir elevations would follow the project’s existing rule curve.

FERC staff prepared a draft environmental assessment for GRDA’s application which analyzes potential environmental effects of approving the requested permanent change to the rule curve. It concludes that such an approval, with specified environmental protection measures, would not constitute a major federal action that would significantly affect the quality of the human environment, according to FERC’s legal notice.

GRDA would operate the project to target the elevations along the rule curve at all times, except as provided by the Storm Plan or the Drought Plan, or as necessary for the U. S Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection.

There have been several hydraulic studies prepared that assess the effects the proposed rule curve amendment would have on flooding according to FERC’s filing. In review of the GRDA 2015 temporary variance request, FERC staff performed an independent analysis of the potential flooding impacts of the rule curve change.

FERC staff concluded, “Staff’s review of aerial photographic data in the vicinity of Miami indicated that there would be increased flooding of 11 structures already inundated with a reservoir starting elevation of 741 feet. An additional 22 structures that are located within a 30-foot horizontal buffer of the inundation zone could also be impacted. Nonetheless, many inundated structures are located at the edge of the inundated area where flood depths are minor and the incremental flooding impacts are minimal… If GRDA is proactive in its adaptive management procedures, using technical experts to continually assess the potential for storm events and reacting quickly when necessary by notifying downstream residents using EAP procedures that have been developed for the project, there would be at most minimal increases in incremental flooding.”

In response to the City of Miami commissioned Tetra Tech study, FERC’s stated in the notice , “Mead & Hunt concluded that the Tetra Tech modeling cannot be relied upon for future studies until it has been verified that the model configuration, parameters, calibration results, and overall results are accurate and recommended that further investigation be completed before relying on the higher water surface elevations determined in the study.”

As part of its permanent amendment request, GRDA proposes to implement a Storm Plan that would be used year-round in anticipation of and during major precipitation events within the Grand/Neosho River basin that might result in high water conditions upstream or downstream of Grand Lake.

Also as part of its permanent amendment request, GRDA would institute its proposed Drought Plan during any period in which the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor identifies a severe to exceptional drought within the Grand/Neosho River basin. The plan would help guide project operations and flow releases during drought conditions. It’s the same plan used in 2016 and is similar to the plan used in 2015.

Substantive issues raised in pre-filing consultation with FERC included the extent and frequency of flooding of upstream areas and interpretation of recent flood studies; progress in recent consultation between resource agencies and GRDA on mitigation for fish and wildlife under the current rule curve; and protection of historic properties and archaeological sites. Almost all of the issues raised in pre-filing consultation were relevant to a permanent rule curve change, according to FERC.

Several formal responses were made in 2016 to GRDA’s Amendment Application including from the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, Oklahoma DWC, landowner Al Newkirk, the U.S Department of the Interior. Office of the Solicitor, N. Larry Bork, City of Miami, the Miami, Ottawa, Peoria and Eastern Shawnee Tribes, of Oklahoma, the Wyandotte and Seneca-Cayuga Nations, and the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey.

On November 8, 2016, GRDA filed an answer to the comments filed by the Interior, the Tribes, Mr. Bork, and the City of Miami regarding flood effects, indicating that these entities’ comments are without merit and outside the scope of the Commission’s statutory responsibilities. The response also outlined FERC is not authorized to address flood control and flowage rights at Pensacola Dam because flood control is not a project purpose under the FPA, and Congress has tasked the US Army Corps of Engineers with these responsibilities.

GRDA claims during the temporary variances in 2015 and 2016, its Storm Plan successfully reduced the risk of flooding at the project and that the Tribe’s allegation that the Commission has failed to meet its responsibilities under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act are without merit. GRDA asserts they consulted with the appropriate agencies and Tribes and that water levels under its proposal would not be outside the range of the current rule curve, and that any impacts to historic properties from flood control are beyond the scope of the undertaking and the Commission’s jurisdiction. GRDA indicated that, while the Tribes have asserted that project operation is causing flooding of Tribal trust lands, the Tribes have not identified properties listed or eligible for listing in the National Register that would be affected by the proposed action.

Grand Lake is used for multiple purposes including power generation, recreation, wildlife enhancement, and flood control. Dedicated flood storage (the flood pool) is provided between elevations 745 and 755 feet. When reservoir elevations are within the limits of the flood pool, the Tulsa District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) directs water releases from the dam under the terms of a 1992 Letter of Understanding and Water Control Agreement between the Corps and GRDA that addresses flooding both upstream and downstream of Grand Lake. Since issuance of the 1996 order, GRDA has filed eight requests for either temporary variances from, or permanent amendments of, the elevations specified in the Article 401 rule curve. Six of those applications were withdrawn by GRDA, denied, or dismissed by the Commission. Temporary variances were approved in 2012, 2015 and 2016 allowing for purposes of dealing with regional drought, and to enhance recreational boating in late summer and early fall.

Now GRDA has requested the permanent variance for lake recreational purposes which has brought much objection from many affected by flooding, the City of Miami, Native American Tribes in Ottawa County, residents, business owners, and landowners.

Several federally listed species are known to use the Pensacola Project area. The gray bat and the Neosho mucket are listed as endangered, while the Ozark cavefish and the Neosho madtom are listed as threatened.

In its April 21, 2016 comments on GRDA’s application, the Fish &Wildlife Service states that GRDA’s proposal would not adversely affect any listed species and no further consultation pursuant to the ESA is required for this proceeding, according to FERC’s filing.

“Based on information, analysis, and evaluations contained in this EA, we find that approval of the proposed rule curve amendment, to include the mandatory conditions stipulated by Oklahoma DEQ in its 401 certification, would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” FERC stated in their filing. “We reviewed six qualifying comprehensive plans that are applicable to the proposed action at the Pensacola Project No. 1494, located in Oklahoma. The proposed action is consistent with all of the reviewed comprehensive plans. “

Comments may be filed by Feb. 6 electronically on FERC’s website at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp.

Comments can also be submitted by brief comments up to 6,000 characters, without prior registration, using the eComment system at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp. Commenters must include their name and contact information at the end of their comments.

For assistance, commenters can contact FERC for online support.

FERC strongly encourages electronic filing, but documents may also be paper-filed to: Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 888 First Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20426. The first page of the filing should include the docket number P-1494-437.

For further information contact B. Peter Yarrington at 202-502-6129 or peter.yarrington@ferc.gov or Jeremy Jessop at 202-502-6779 or Jeremy.jessop@ferc.gov.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com. or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1